Toronto FC had a lot of questions to answer after the way they crashed out of last year's playoffs. An embarrassed 3-0 loss to rival Montreal Impact was a terrible way to end the club's first playoff appearance.
The player's and staff could only say so much, knowing that only strong performances in 2016 would be an appropriate answer. That was the only way they would be able to silence the hoard of critics that said they still weren't good enough to compete with the league's best teams.
To start the 2016 season, however, Toronto FC were allowed to leave all of those critics behind. Renovations to BMO Field meant the team spent the first two months of the season playing away from home. It was a trip seen as a difficult test for the team. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Away from home, Toronto FC was able to open the season with tempered expectations. If they were playing at home, fans would have been looking for an immediate sign that last year's demons were behind the team. But nobody has a winning record away from home in MLS, and fans and media alike certainly didn't expect all that much of TFC.
Eight points from eight games was the minimum target given, one that the club would ultimately surpass by securing 11. Not only did these low expectations take pressure off the players, they took the heat off manager Greg Vanney. Vanney was a controversial figure around Toronto last year, and many called for his head after the loss to the Montreal Impact.
Instead, like the team on the field, he has shown considerable improvement to start the season. Not concerned with having to live up to big expectations, Vanney has been able to tinker with the club's lineup. At the end of the road trip,his club looked like a well-oiled machine, in part thanks to the new system he had implemented.
To start the year that system was far from pretty as the team worked tirelessly to create the defensive shape that had been missing last season. The team ground out results, allowing the other team the majority of possession and time on attack. But it didn't matter because clubs are expected to play like this on the road.
In the same vein, opening the season on the road allowed Vanney a chance to find the best place to play his new weapons. Where to play Clint Irwin, Drew Moor, and Steven Beitashour was fairly straightforward. But there were questions as to how Will Johnson would fit into the club's midfield.
Initially, Vanney had the team playing a 4-3-3, with Johnson, Michael Bradley and one of Benoit Cheyrou or Jonathan Osorio in the midfield. At the end of the road-trip, however, the club was playing a 4-4-2 diamond.
Finally, there is the simple fact that playing on the road allows the players more time with each other. At home, players go their separate ways before and after games and training. On the road, however, they are far more likely to bond with one another. This is especially important considering the four new starters Toronto added this year.
All of these factors have combined to allow Toronto to use their season-opening road trip to build an identity that did not previously exist. The club looks significantly more organized and understanding of their roles than they did all of last season, and the new players have fit perfectly into the fold.
Toronto FC still has plenty to do before they have fully atoned for their sins of last year. Picking up points on the road only matter if home games are won. However, the team appears to have found itself on the road to this weekend's home opener.