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Big Read: To win the MLS Cup, the Reds will have to risk their football identity, and we should let them

The shadow of the postseason looms over Major League Soccer, and as the teams prepare for war, Toronto FC must choose which version of themselves to bring into battle.

Inter Miami CF v Toronto FC (Black/Corbis/Getty)

TORONTO, Canada—The 2017 Reds are not coming back.

This might seem odd to say, but in saying it I am suggesting more than just the obvious. This year has been, to put it diplomatically, an adventure for Toronto FC players and fans alike. But through everything—the handful of assured highs and a selection of disconsolate lows—something has remained constant throughout the majority of their games: an unwavering notion that Toronto FC could, and in fact should, be performing better.

When I say the 2017 Reds are not coming back, I mean that we, the fans, need to release the expectation that the 2020 Reds should—and one day will—not only play like, but veritably become the squad from three years ago; we need to stop our backseat campaign of forced necromancy before the playoffs begin.

If we are able to do this, it will not only be a much more engaging experience for us, but, almost certainly, it will also result in a better performance by the team.

Toronto—the not-good-enough?

Toronto FC v New York City FC: Round of 16 - MLS Is Back Tournament
Toronto FC has had to try a plethora of different strategies both on and off the pitch to find their way through 2020.

It is the near-ubiquitous case that in every match recap this season, one can find both praise and critique levied at the performance of Toronto FC. This binary was most poignant on nights when Toronto was able to spring one of their miracle wins; on these occasions, discontent was often in as great supply as satisfaction. Despite three points, it was usually the situation that the Reds wasted too many opportunities, or had several glaring weaknesses, or were just plain lucky in achieving victory.

Throughout the season—unless TFC dominated their opponents the way they did in 2017—triumph has been met with an unshakable sense of relief rather than thrill. While fans are clearly aware of the team’s positives, they have noticeably lacked the supremacy of confidence they used to possess.

But how is this possible? Toronto FC in 2020 have finished the regular season with the second best record in the entire league—only a spittle of points kept them from first. It’s statistically impossible that they are anything less than a good team. Wherein many other squads would be praised for their valor in difficult times, we are quick to condemn our own for their imperfection.

While players like Pablo Piatti were brought in during the preseason with the precise objective of recreating the team’s intimidating demeanour from 2017, the rash of injuries that has swept through the roster fundamentally dismantled those plans months ago—and we all knew it.

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC - MLS Is Back Tournament
Pablo Piatti has proven to be key part of Toronto FC’s offensive strategy—when he is not injured.

This loss of key players (including the likes of Pablo Piatti, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Jozy Altidore) has been the critical factor in TFC’s inability to fully replicate old strategies; it has very little to do with the on-field actions of the players—we all know this too.

None of this to mention the overwhelming providence that our best player, Alejandro Pozuelo, has remained healthy despite being the only goal scoring threat for several consecutive games, and in every single one of those games, has had a two or three-man hit squad of defenders converge on him if he so much as took a breath—even this, we all know.

We, as fans, can clearly recognize serendipity when it comes, and likewise are aware that it is irrational to expect a side saddled with injury to execute on the same level as when they are healthy. Furthermore, Toronto is not only winning with a partial complement, but they are also transitioning new, young players into old slots. The team is seemingly doing everything at once.

But if this is all so obvious, why hasn’t it deterred the protracted feeling of forlorn that has permeated almost every aspect of Toronto FC’s 2020 season? While certain undying expectations are the clear catalyst for this specific disenchantment, the root of the issue runs much more profound.

Toronto is a city plagued with insecurity. We try to act with confidence, try to move with the dauntless swagger of establishment, but our place in the North American sporting pantheon becomes as unambiguous as a razor in times when Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore—a New Yorker and a New Jerseyite—are taunted by their countrymen.

However, even this example is a contest of perspectives. To us, it felt as though our two leading men are receiving needless hatred. To the American fans, they were merely recalling their national team’s inability to qualify for the World Cup.

FC Dallas v Toronto FC
Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore—Toronto FC figureheads—have been missing for the majority of the season due to injury.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In dealing with our own team we need to be unremittingly clear-eyed.

In 2017, Toronto FC was great. To many, the greatest. And, understandably, there is substantial hesitation on our part to let go of this greatness: to let go of what has been proven to work in raising the MLS Cup.

But the old ways are no longer working in exclusivity, and, on the part of the fans, our ongoing solution is flawed. Toronto FC have been successful this year in spite of old methods, not because of them; and in pretending the 2020 Reds should perform as a carbon copy as the team that won the Treble, we impose on them an impossible reality; we are expecting them to never age, never get injured, and never make mistakes. We are expecting Toronto FC to be perfect.

Forgive me for saying so, but they never will be.

The full bracket of Extratime’s Greatest Team of All-Time poll.
Extratime via

In the shadow of greatness

The Reds nostalgia woes are made markedly worse this year by the mere existence of the Philadelphia Union.

The latest holders of the Supporter’s Shield—a trophy that mere weeks ago, let’s be honest, many of us expected would be ours again—have looked, to deliberately use a term often associated with TFC, dominant when they are in form. They have an unrelenting and utterly lethal offence, which is backed by a bitterly resilient defence and a composed midfield.

To put it another way, they look more than reminiscent of the 2017 Reds when their straps are tightened. The Union’s 5-0 molecular deconstruction of Toronto FC hurts intimately because the roles used to be reversed; it was us, the brave and glorious and scientifically-efficient Reds, who were once atomizing other teams.

In losing to the Philadelphia Union, we were beaten by our past selves.

This past Sunday’s loss was even further agonizing, but not because Philadelphia won their own own match, thereby securing the Shield, but because Toronto was defeated by a lesser team; the Reds did not do their part to put themselves in a position to hoist the manhole cover if and when fortune ever decided to grant them an audience; the game was as much a matter of pride, or lack thereof, as it was performance.

Thus, a rift exists in the minds of fans between the TFC that can still dominate games and the TFC that inexplicably switches off in big moments. This is also why the string of “miracle” wins inspire so little loyalty from the fan base: they feel—an important qualifier in this context—as though Toronto is (cue random scoffing) barely winning; and, furthermore, in some way or another, as past champions they are above this method of finding success.

SOCCER: OCT 24 MLS - Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union
Alejandro Pozuelo being overwhelmed by defenders during Philadelphia Union’s 5-0 victory over Toronto FC.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To know what is actually going on we have to look at the numbers.

In matches that TFC have led, they have gone 13-4-0 (W-D-L). In matches that TFC have not led, they have gone 0-1-5. In matches that TFC have trailed, they have gone 3-1-5. In matches that TFC have not trailed, they have gone 10-4-0.

Translated, there are two big layman’s takeaways. The first is that TFC have never lost a match when they have led; leading is something the 2017 team was accustomed to doing, and it is presumably why we gravitate to that style of play even now—both the team and the fans like being in control. The second is that, of the nine matches TFC has trailed in, they have salvaged points in four of those games—one draw and three wins (read: comebacks); if we are losing, nearly half of the time we claw our way out of the hole.

Of the 23 matches played, Toronto has only lost five games. If we presume, for the sake of being maudlin, TFC laid down and died in those matches, then then in 22 per cent of matches TFC have been a disappointment. Comparatively, in 2017, Toronto lost 5 of 34 matches played (15 per cent). Three years ago, the team of destiny were technically only seven per cent better than they are now.

In other words, Toronto FC in 2020 is weirdly consistent. The team’s weaker moments are infrequent enough that they should happily fall into the margins of expected happenings during the course of a season, especially considering the circumstances.

Rationally, while it is acceptable to feel that the Reds have under-performed on a game-to-game basis, in terms of the bigger picture, they are proving to be playing very well: better than 24 other teams, in fact, including last year’s champion the Seattle Sounders, who earlier in the year the pundits were loosening their belts for.

It is time for us to admit that as soon as our conceptual team was felled by ill occurrences, the actual team had to find new ways to move forward, and in doing so, winning the Treble—glorious though it would have been—became secondary to the prime directive of lifting the MLS Cup once more.

2019 MLS Cup - Toronto FC v Seattle Sounders
Toronto FC’s firebrand manager Greg Vanney has taken his fair share of criticism this year.

New Wine and Old Wineskins

In a recent interview, Greg Vanney was asked how he felt about his team going goalless in two straight games; the question itself is quite cunning because of how it veils subtlety inside of the quotidian. As hoped for, Vanney gave an impassioned response.

What was being asked, in truth, rapped on the very skeleton of Toronto FC and their insecurities. In effect, Vanney was asked why his team was not living up to the expectations of yesteryear, and even more in the marrow, why his team was not as good as it used to be.

But this entire narrative of the current TFC needing to be like the old TFC creates a poncy connection between 2017 and 2020, all while floating cavalierly past the unacknowledged 2019. Only last season the Reds were a complete write-off. They were expected to accomplish little and thus many fans were prematurely looking toward the next season.

And then, out of nowhere, as summer was drawing its final breaths, they started winning. They started winning and they kept winning. And then the playoffs came. They crushed D.C. United, took a stunning underdog victory over New York City FC, and then dispatched reigning champions Atlanta United to find themselves in the MLS Cup Final.

All this from zero expectations.

The 2019 season is proof that we need to let go. With no tired expectations weighing the team down like a boat anchor, they were free—free from not only playing in a specified way, but free to find solutions in whatever way the situation demanded.

In 2020, Toronto has tried to become their old selves, but it is not working, and it would be mindless to try to force a square peg into a round hole. Greg Vanney’s reaction shows that he understands this and has, in fact, long ago stopped trying. The state of the locker room is different than the expectations of the fans.

The 2017 Reds were a great team enjoying great circumstances. The 2020 Reds are grinding through undisputedly dire circumstances, yet are still managing to be very good. We have excelled at precisely what the 2019 Reds excelled at—not being perfect, but being workmanlike in the creation of answers.

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC - MLS Is Back Tournament
Ayo Akinola has been a revelation for TFC, often the engine of finding clutch goals in tight moments.

The High Road

If, reasonably, we know Toronto FC can do little better because of injury, and if, reasonably, we know Toronto FC has managed to win consistently despite misfortune, then why, reasonably, can we not let go of their imperfection?

Because, like our insecurity, this is emotional. The fear exists, somewhere deep and unplumbed in our minds, that if we let go of our usual routines, not only do we risk losing this year, but we risk never being that good ever again.

The game of football is beautiful because the emotion it brings encompasses pure potential. As such, it demands idealism, but only so far as it can find marriage with practicality. The greatest product of this relationship is evolution, and all evolution requires risk. That is where we find ourselves now.

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC
TFC’s home BMO Field has seen only a meagre amount of play this year.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Toronto FC have been playing divorced from its fans, both literally and figuratively. Again, Greg Vanney’s frustrated reaction presented a strong sentiment of unnamed ingratitude for everything the team has have accomplished. But the hidden honesty in his response is that, in some way, big or small, we as fans have forgotten that the Reds compete for us.

Like a team operating on a partial complement of players, a team without its fans is unfinished—worse, it is purposeless. And our ongoing doubt of the Reds also brings with it a silent condemnation: in some way these characters playing on the field are not the same personalities we fell in love with; they are not the true Reds. Somehow they have changed, and in doing so, have broken an unspoken pact.

Toronto FC have only one pact, only one covenant: to represent Toronto and to win. And—like the 2017 Reds—a balance needs to be struck with how we view our team. Never forget that before the pair of late goals on that cold December night when they became champions—and made us all champions—we, the fans, were all very scared and very nervous history we deem us unworthy for a second year in a row, regardless of how good our team was. It was never as certain as we make it appear nowadays; some things are only perfect when viewed (and reviewed) with rose-tinted glasses.

Now, there is the very real possibility that no matter what happens, Toronto FC loses at some point in the postseason and we are left disappointed, and at worst, humiliated; but, that is only a definite outcome if we continue to worship outmoded ideas. If we can release them of expired expectations, Greg Vanney and all of those players will know we have confidence in them, and they will start doing what they’ve been doing all along—winning—but with full hearts.

Another possibility exists—one wherein the Reds do no disappoint, but rather go one step further than last year and once more raise the MLS Cup; if that happens, the only ones who will genuinely be surprised are the Toronto FC fans.

If there was ever a time, or an outcome on which to risk, it is now, and it is this.

2017 MLS Cup - Seattle Sounders v Toronto FC Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images