No new mailbag this week - double-game weeks are madness - so instead, last week’s column will serve as the location for any new questions or comments
There has been something different in the air around Toronto FC over the past few weeks.
For most of the season, the constant reminder was 'one week at a time'. Michael Bradley was fond of saying it, almost militant in fact. Greg Vanney too sought to approach the season without gazing at what possibly lay on the horizon, focused instead on the task at hand.
It has been clear for most of the year that this was not the old TFC.
The off-season was a masterstroke, addressing every shortcoming imagined. The only glaring holes heading into the season – some speed in wide areas and a bit of on the ball trickery – were filled mid-summer, with the acquisitions of Tosaint Ricketts and Armando Cooper.
But it is those winter signings that changed the tone.
The amount of experience brought in through Drew Moor, Will Johnson, Steven Beitashour, and Clint Irwin is of such valuable as to be nearly immeasurable.
Soccer is soccer, but MLS is MLS. Those two irreconcilable truths clash, but at their core the lesson remains: experience matters.
As recently the loss to Montreal at the end of August, though positive, there was an air of caution, hints of a job unfinished, in the comments of those who had been there before.
Asked if he saw that same intangible quality that supported Portland's hoisting of last season's MLS Cup, Will Johnson said:
“I see it. When we play well, when we have the right balance – attacking and defensive, when we rise to the occasion and get results, and play with confidence, play to our strengths, we're very good. And we can beat anybody anywhere; doesn't matter home, away. That's a big positive going in the playoffs because you're going to have to get results all over the league.”
Quickly adding: “It's still frustrating at times, when we go on a good run, to fall backwards so hard the way that we have in San Jose, Houston, Montreal at home... Red Bull away early in the year. Those games still raise red flags in terms of our weaknesses. And that's the part where I go back to us working and continuing to fix those problems and learn how to get results even when we're not exactly playing well.”
Moor, who won the cup with Colorado back in 2010, offered something very similar: “I knew that we were going to be good, that we were going to be a playoff calibre – in my opinion, championship calibre – team. But we still have a long way to go to prove that.”
And he relayed that to his experience with the Rapids:
“One thing about that Colorado team was the way that we could grind. MLS is a grind; you can't get too high, you can't get too low – you have to stay even keel. Take your tough losses as they come, enjoy your victories and good runs when you can.”
“[In] Colorado we started to put things together towards the end of the season, as it feels like we have in Toronto. It's definitely a very different team, but any time you can go away from home and get good results – we've been fantastic on the road this season. You have to go on the road in the playoffs, in big atmospheres, in tough places, and be able to get results. The biggest parallel is the way we can grind, not stop for 90-plus minutes.”
Such words were buoyant, but cautious. The takeaway was 'yes, but not yet'.
Now, TFC are positively bullish heading into the business end of the MLS season.
Mathematical possibility (or impossibility to be more, if less, accurate) aside, TFC are all but assured of a place in the MLS Cup playoffs.
The side is pleased, but listening to what they are saying now evidences a higher aim.
Said Bradley after the draw on the weekend: “Everybody should feel good about officially being in, but the way things have gone, when we look at ourselves, we feel there is a lot more out there for us.” Again, if not 'officially' in, the point stands.
Said Altidore: “We've come a long way, [but] I don't think we've played our best. We're on the right track.”
And Bradley again, earlier last week, ahead of the Red Bulls match: “We aren't afraid to say that we want to win the Supporters' Shield; we want to finish first in the East...”
And then there was Benoit Cheyrou, who said, “we cannot be satisfied if we do not win other things this year.”
It is refreshing to hear players who regularly couch their comments be more forceful in their statements of intent.
The will is there; they have good reason to be so positive about what the future holds.
The draw on the weekend against New York was disappointing, in that it was a second-straight home match without a win and the club allowed three goals, the first time they had conceded more than once since mid-July – a span of nine matches.
But it was yet another example of the side never being beat, never throwing in the towel. The one exception was the 3-0 loss in New York against the Red Bull in May, however, the difference between those two touch-points is obvious.
In May, Bradley Wright-Phillips scored in the 4th and 25th minutes, adding a third two minutes later, collapse complete, even a red card to Gonzalo Veron before half-time, could not swing the result.
But this weekend, despite a 12th minute own-goal off Beitashour and a Wright-Phillips strike in the 31st, TFC pulled on back before half-time to keep it a contest. And even when Red Bulls' main man added a third in the 48th, Toronto stormed back with a pair from Altidore to salvage a point.
Such was just the latest example of a determination that has been evident all season.
It was present against NYC FC in March, was there against Vancouver in a 3-4 loss, and in the 3-2 loss in Orlando. Results did not always provide the accompaniment, it didn't always end as hoped, but such is the reality of a finite window... sometimes one runs out of time.
But running out of time is not the same as getting beat; something touched on here before.
Toronto now has five matches left to put the finishing touches on the project. They are braced for the playoffs, focused on getting healthy and polishing the finer points. Grace willing, they'll get there too.
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