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WTR Top 20, No. 15: Alex Bono is the future, but what about the present?

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Clint Irwin’s injury could have been disastrous for Toronto FC. Instead, it gave rise to a new hope.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

It was June 25. On a routine goal kick, with the score tied 1-1, Clint Irwin felt a wrench in his right quadriceps. As he rolled around on the humid and sticky artificial turf of Camping World Stadium, Toronto FC fans inhaled. Up to that point, their goalie had been enjoying a solid season. The net was secure. Now, that security was writhing in agony. Irwin left the field under his own power, but fans knew that the news would not be good. To compound matters, in came Alex Bono.

Alex who? Never before had the TFC faithful seen this 22 year-old in a game situation. This was the first MLS appearance for the New York native. He took his place between the posts. His twitchy movements and facial expressions betrayed his nervousness. Then it happened - a moment of indecision, and a clumsy attempt to stop the ball. A wide open net. Another deep inhale for the faithful. Orlando made no mistake, and the score was 2 -1.

What was Bono thinking? Why would he make such a mistake? How could he have made such a mistake? You wouldn’t expect a blunder like this from a high-school match. Oh well… no bother… Irwin would be back soon enough, right?

Then the news came: Irwin was going to be out at least six weeks. A furtive glance at the schedule revealed eight MLS matches and the Canadian Championship. Roughly a quarter of the season gone. Surely TFC would sign (or trade for) another starting goalkeeper. The young, indecisive, inexperienced Bono could not be trusted to marshal the back line. Mistakes like that, throughout the summer, would destroy any hope of a decent season, let alone a playoff spot. But Greg Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko stuck with their rookie. So, too, did the team. No one in the dressing room blamed Alex for that Mickey Mouse goal in Orlando.

MLS: Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Four days later, Bono planted his 6’ 3’’ frame in net for the Canadian Championship decider against Vancouver. He made a fantastic diving save late in the first half to keep the game tied 0-0. TFC clinched the title on Will Johnson’s famous leg-shattering goal. Bono looked better.

Two games later, on July 9, the Chicago Fire fell 1-0 at BMO Field and Bono had his first career shutout. His confidence rose steadily from that point onward. The loyal fanbase came around. His name was chanted by the south end, he was sought out for pre-game and post-game interviews by the TFC and opposition media alike. He was no longer just a stand-in.

Bono went on to play half the 2016 season for the Reds. His stats were amazing. Not amazing for a rookie, but amazing period. The chart below compares his performance to some of the top keepers in the league. Why he wasn’t a finalist for Rookie of the Year, I’ll never know - perhaps for the same reasons that Sebastian Giovinco, Drew Moor and Vanney were left off the award shortlists (no, I’m not bitter).

How Bono compares

Player Team Age Games Shutouts per game Save percentage Goals-against average Win %
Player Team Age Games Shutouts per game Save percentage Goals-against average Win %
Alex Bono Toronto FC 22 16 0.25 72.41 1.00 .500
Luis Robles New York Red Bulls 32 34 0.32 69.44 1.29 .471
Stefan Frei Seattle Sounders 30 33 0.24 68.94 1.24 .424
Tim Howard Colorado Rapids 37 17 0.41 73.97 1.12 .353
Clint Irwin Toronto FC 27 19 0.32 68.49 1.21 .316
Andre Blake Philadelphia Union 26 32 0.19 66.44 1.56 .313

Stats via mlssoccer.com.

As you can see, Bono led this illustrious group in goals-against average and win percentage. He is second in save percentage, with Tim Howard the only other goalkeeper above 70%. He is also the youngest player on the list by some margin and is therefore, arguably, the keeper with the greatest upside.

His play inspired such confidence in his teammates that there was no rush to put Irwin back in net, and the No.1 sat on the bench for several matches after being declared medically fit to play. The decision as to who to start in the playoffs was also a difficult one for Vanney and despite the Reds’ MLS Cup final appearance, a case can be made that Vanney made the wrong call. Bono had earned the right to continue, and playoff experience would have been great for his development.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Irwin was lost to Atlanta United in the MLS Expansion Draft, albeit only for a few hours, the TFC fanbase was not as concerned as it might once have been. Their goal was still secure - a far cry from that fateful day in Orlando.

In Alex’s own words, he certainly “took advantage of the opportunity”. He is, without question, Toronto’s Bono-fide keeper of the future. The only question is: Is that future now?