MANITOBA, Canada—Even though the 2021 season is still very much its infancy, it has already imparted an indelible truth to Toronto FC: depth is crucial.
And Toronto may have no more resounding position of strength through depth than at goalkeeper.
Granted, Toronto’s victory over León in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 came through the collective will of its entire roster. For every moment supporters had to fawn over the perpetual motion machine that is mainstay Michael Bradley, we were also given glimpses from the infantry of the initial ascent of Ralph Priso and Noble Okello’s surely meteoric rises.
Goals came off the boot of reserve marksman Patrick Mullins and the… shoulder? back? side? of Justin Morrow, who made his appearance from the bench. Luke Singh, the four-day wonder, produced a performance beyond his young years alongside Omar Gonzalez in the heart of the TFC defense, with his shock of blonde hair popping up to snatch headers away on both ends of the pitch. The germinating seeds of a squad of some measure are staring to sprout.
But the man who sealed the victory, surely, was goalkeeper Alex Bono.
The save that last year’s understudy made in the 89’ minute of the match against León was, as TFC’s digital/social/content whiz Eric Giacometti put it: “The difference between the QFs and elimination.”
Bono’s heroics to ensure Toronto FC’s CCL advancement once again sent off a resounding warning shot to ring out across MLS that Toronto FC has two of the best in the business between the sticks in Bono and Quentin Westberg.
This news certainly comes as no surprise to TFC supporters who have seen both goalkeepers backstop the Reds to some memorable moments throughout the years and are well aware of the quality they bring to the team.
It appears that manager Chris Armas sees both goalkeepers as dual No. 1 options going into this season, with the manager stating after the first leg in León that the club is set to be backstopped by the dynamic duo throughout the season.
“We have two No. 1s,” said Armas. “In my mind, in our minds…we see two No. 1s”.
Armas also highlighted the fact that he views this competition for the starting role as healthy and that he is very happy to have “two goalkeepers in here with big experience in their own right.”
Of course, Bono was in goal when TFC became the first ever Canadian champion of MLS in 2017, cementing the squad as one of the league’s best ever, and during the charge to the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2018, while Westberg made his own mark on the Reds with his heroics on the way back to the MLS Cup final in 2019.
2020 starter Westberg was first-rate in his 20 appearances for the club last season, chalking up six clean-sheets, while making some saves that will truly make some strikers reconsider their profession (might I suggest ‘travel agent’, Ola Kamara?).
Westberg, a graduate of the illustrious Clairefontaine football academy in France, had certainly staked his claim to the starting spot with his assured play in his tenure thus far, as Michael Singh illustrated last season. Along with his quick reflexes and veteran guile, the 34-year-old brings more than just shot stopping to the table, with his consistent ability to have his head up and remain composed with the ball at his feet allowing him to pick a pass of any distance—an immeasurable asset to a modern-attacking side like TFC.
Bono has made the most of his time as an understudy to Westberg over the last few seasons. After he lost the starting gig to his French-American counterpart after years of being the main man, Bono rose to the challenge. Building on his profile as an agile, accomplished shot stopper with immense aerial ability, he continued to develop his game and take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves.
In his three appearances in MLS last season, Bono did not allow a single goal.
His play and development in key areas of his game in the early days of this new campaign had Chris Armas singing his praises after his immense display against León on Wednesday.
“He looked really sure of himself, in distribution, crosses and all the handling,” said Armas. “So, just a real mature, solid performance. And you love when your goalkeeper can help the team and reward himself with some really big saves late. He’s a big presence in there and he did a nice job. I’m happy for him.”
Bono also showed his emerging veteran savvy to…disrupt…the León attempts to restart play after scoring. A lesson in CONCACAFery imparted on the young goalkeeper through his extensive experience in the competition.
Having two No. 1 goalkeepers is a dream come true for a manager, especially when both goalkeepers are as bought in as Q and Bones appear to be. Between normal rotation, potential injuries or COVID, suspension, or dip in form, the Reds gaffer can feel assured that whatever man is between the sticks is well worthy of the role.
Not only does this offer Armas options this season, but it projects well for the future, with the younger Bono already showing the influence that the steady, veteran presence of Westberg has had on his own game. Reciprocally, the younger Bono’s ever-increasing ability provides the challenge for Westberg to maintain the top form that has seen him claim the No. 1 jersey (er...#16) as his own over the last two campaigns.
In Waking the Red’s season preview, we give the nod to Westberg for the start against
the Montreal Impact CF Montreal, but would have the same feelings of equanimity if we saw #25 walk out into the Florida afternoon behind Michael Bradley for their season opener.
Regardless of who starts on Saturday or who tends goal after that, Toronto FC supporters, who have certainly seen their fair share of goalkeepers at the club, can feel confident that TFC is in good stead in this 2021 season with two legitimate No. 1 goalkeepers that any MLS club would love to get their hands on.