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Alex Bono looks to valuable 2016 experience to push Clint Irwin in Toronto FC net

The 22-year-old got a taste of MLS last year and is in a true goalkeeper battle with the more experienced No. 1 this time around.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake
Bono warming up ahead of the season opener in Salt Lake
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing the series of checking in with some of the less-covered players at Toronto FC, WTR caught up with Alex Bono on Tuesday last week, before his surprise start in Vancouver on Saturday.

Selected 6th overall in the 2015 SuperDraft, after spending much of his rookie season with TFC II Alex Bono got his first taste of MLS action in 2016, debuting off the bench – no easy feat – after Clint Irwin was laid low by a freak injury when taking a goal kick in Orlando at the end of June.

It was anything but a simple introduction; Bono twice watched his side come back from deficits only for the hard work to be undone by a dubious 100th-minute penalty kick by Kaka. Welcome to MLS, indeed.

Bono would go on to start the next 14 straight matches, accumulating a record of eight wins, two losses, and four draws over the spell and keeping three clean sheets in the process before making way for the returning Irwin at the end of September.

The former Syracuse player would make one final appearance, against Orlando again on September 28, before TFC's playoff run to the MLS Cup final began. Having tasted the big show, watching from the bench was tough but there was plenty for the now-third year pro to learn from his touchline vantage point.

“[The MLS Cup run] was incredible,” said Bono. “It's important for any young player, especially a goalkeeper, to see the environments in those games. I aspire to be in [them] myself one day. Getting that under your belt, knowing, after you see it, that I can play in this environment, I can play against this team, I can play at this level. It's confidence building, having that experience in your head; knowing that when it's your time you'll be ready.”

Between the MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders and that famous two-legged Eastern Conference final between Toronto and the Montreal Impact, there was plenty for the 22-year-old to soak up. Bono will turn 23 on April 1.

“That is the biggest crowd I've ever been in front of and the biggest stage, atmosphere,” said Bono of the night in Montreal, where TFC conceded three early only to storm back with a pair in the second half to extend the contest before overturning the deficit in the return leg. “It was quite a spectacle. That's part of what makes the rivalry so special, those two games right there.”

Despite the value of such experience coming early in his career, Bono admitted he was not satisfied with merely being a spectator. “[I was] definitely [itching to play in those matches]. None of us would be in the spots we are if we weren't itching to get out there every minute, especially in the playoffs and MLS Cup.”

With an offseason spent back home, relaxing at his parents’ house and taking some time off, Bono reflected on the progress he had made over the calendar year, from featuring only in USL matches to playing nearly half the season with the MLS side.

“You look back on it, the games you played, the experiences you had,” mused Bono. “You take them in stride, put them in the memory bank, get back to work and wipe it clean for the next season and try and replicate those.”

The offseason, however, was a short one, so amidst the pause Bono said he “tried to stay as fit as I could and as we got closer, started training, getting some keeper stuff back in for preseason.”

Just two matches into the campaign, both of which were started by Irwin, Bono was clear in his intentions.

“I'm hoping to get matches with the first team. However that happens, friendlies, things happen throughout the season, we'll stay the course with that,” detailed Bono. “If I have to go down to get a couple USL games with TFC II then that will happen too. Play the season by ear and we'll find games in there somewhere.”

Speaking that same Tuesday, TFC coach Greg Vanney was adamant that there would be moments for Bono, though that one would come so quickly was not entirely clear.

“I've gone through the schedule, looked at a few games that I've asterisked as games to get Alex in, make sure that we get him some moments,” outlined Vanney, noting that there was “an ongoing goalkeeper battle”.

“We started with Clint; doesn't mean that Alex won't get an opportunity,” continued Vanney. “That's something we're continuing to assess. [He] did a great job when he had his chance last year. And I think it's fair that, just like every other position on the field, there is competition for that position. It's early in the year. As we try to bring along players, we'll look for Alex to get some game time with first team, in USL, and at some point we'll [be] ultimately settling into something.”

Speaking a week later, after Bono's shutout in Vancouver, Vanney was consistent in his philosophy.

“We have two very good goalkeepers,” stated Vanney. “It's important we bring Alex along. He proved last year he's fully capable of being a goalkeeper in this league that you can rely on. I want to keep him motivated, competing. And it's important for the starting goalkeeper [too]. They can't get too comfortable, know that their job is always inked in, no matter what. Everybody should be competing for their position and to be sharp.”

Continued Vanney: “Clint isn't that guy [who needs his confidence boosted with certainty]. He comes to work every day, does his job, and is extremely professional. Alex needs to be challenged to be ready every single moment because of how seasons work. There's an ongoing competition. It's the beginning of the season, guys are earning minutes, showing they're reliable as we move on.”

That is as it should be. Vanney is very big on competition for places – it has been a mantra this offseason. And looking over the lineup, one can single out very few spots that are guaranteed from week to week. Even in those that are – Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley - there is depth in that position should it be required and those in the team will be pushed.

Though such competition could feasibly strain relationships when livelihoods are on the line, Bono contends that the camaraderie amongst TFC's three keepers – Irwin, Bono, and Mark Pais, who trains daily with the first team – is second to none.

“We have a great little goalkeeper community, the four of us, in training and off the field as well,” said Bono, including Jon Conway, the goalkeeping coach, in the count. “Very professional relationships, we have a lot of fun and we get the work done. We push each other every day. There's Clint, and I'm pushing to be right next to [him], and Mark, the new guy, who's pushing to be right next to me. We have a nice little ladder system, always moving upwards and upwards and upwards.”

Part of that is down to Conway's imaginative sessions, that keep training fresh and everyone on their toes - or backs, depending on the drill.

“Jon's always really creative about the type of drills he puts out,” chuckled Bono. “We really enjoy coming out and training with him, especially when we get to do fun drills like we did today.”

And the drills themselves are absorbing, whether it involves assuming prone positions to scramble to loose balls or the three keepers working in unison, one making the initial save and another trying to score the rebound on the third.

Goalkeepers are strange birds, after all, so it makes sense their training would reflect that reality, but Bono wears his casual, straight-forward personality as a badge of honour.

“Some of the guys tell me I'm one of the more normal keepers that they've come across,” he smiled. “I take that as a compliment. They say you have to have a screw loose to be a keeper.”

With Bono keeping a clean sheet in his 2017 debut against Vancouver, albeit with limited action, he will continue to push Irwin for that starting spot.

Away from the pitch, he has his hands full guarding against an altogether more serious threat: his new dog, Drax (which is an awesome name for such a fierce creature).

Missing' this little boy! #Draxy

A post shared by Alex Bono (@alex25bono) on

“I've got a dog, so I like to take care of him, play with him,” said Bono when asked what he does for fun. “He's a big trouble maker, lot of energy, so I've got my hands full with him.”

Aside from his four-legged friend, Bono keeps close with his teammates - one in particular, with whom he shares an address as well as a locker room. “I'm living with Jay Chapman,” said Bono. “We like to hang out a lot, play video games, walk down Queen Street, and hang out downtown.”

And as for Toronto, his new home?

“Yeah, [it's treating me well],” said Bono. “Love Toronto, amazing city.”

Bono's post-match reaction to his 2017 debut can be viewed here, while he was on Sportsnet's TFC Pitchside on Monday night.

WTR is two-for-two when it comes to the subject of these pieces featuring in the next match. Tsubasa Endoh saw action at the right-wing back spot against Philadelphia, while Bono got the start in Vancouver.

Who will be next? Sporting KC and the home opener are a week-plus away, so drop a nomination in the comments section and watch what happens (maybe).