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WTR Mailbag: On New Beginnings

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The past lays behind, the future ahead; possibility is infinite.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake
TFC & RSL clash back in 2015 at the Rio Tinto, a unkind venue for the visiting Toronto
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a strange offseason here in Toronto.

Supporters of this team have experienced all kinds of different winter moods over the past 10 years.

There was the pure elation of the first season, with its pitch invasion despite a humbling year. There was the exasperation that followed that loss in New York back in 2009, when Toronto FC were on the cusp of the playoff berth, only to crumble against the Red Bulls and be forced to watch Real Salt Lake, this weekend's opponent, ride a crest to a club-defining MLS Cup.

In 2012 they had to watch Vancouver become the first Canadian side to feature in the MLS playoffs. Montreal would join them the following season as a member of that elusive club, adding further insult to injury.

Vancouver would make a second appearance in 2014 and all three Canadian rivals were there in 2015, when TFC finally made their debut. No one in Toronto needs reminding of what happened that night in Montreal, the torture spread over two games, hope crushed in mere minutes.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It was all very different last year, with Toronto winning the Eastern Conference championship and hosting the MLS Cup final. Of course, it didn't end as anyone would have liked, a familiar taste of disappointment, yet it came in a distinctly different flavour.

As Oli pointed out in his column yesterday the offseason has been peculiar in many ways. Different from past waits, this disappointment was tinged with a hint of expectation. Random conversations have wavered between what a gut punch it was to lose to a team that did not manage a single shot on goal on penalty kicks and how encouraging overall the run was.

That dichotomy, of failure coloured by success, has made for a manic tone.

TFC are nearly everyone's pick to be the top side in the league this year. It couldn't be any other way, but history has shown that MLS is anything but obvious.

Massive surprises lie around every corner in this league, success in one season rarely predictive of what may come.

It is reflected in the diverging mantras at the club heading into the year: Unfinished Business and the Dawn of the Reds. The past and the future jumbled together.

Clearly this is not the same club that authored all those heartbreaks over the first nine seasons. There is a tenacity there, a will to win and a plan to do so, that has not existed in the past. But still, the fears remain.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

This week at training, Greg Vanney was asked the inevitable question: What would constitute success? First and foremost, is there a points target for the three-match road trip that kicks off their year with matches in Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Vancouver before the home opener on March 31 against Sporting KC?

There is no right answer to such an inane question – apologies, but it had to be asked.

Three wins would be great, three losses bad, and all possibilities in between of varying degrees in either direction. Regardless, no result would be definitive for what the end of the season will bring – MLS is renowned for its streakiness, with teams rising and falling throughout the gruelling campaign – but his answer was revealing of the mindset the team will carry with them on the journey.

“I don't have a point expectation,” said Vanney. “It's important that we start the season off with the right mentality; that's the biggest thing for me. Mentality because of how the season finished, that we are approaching this game as a team, with the right purpose, and the right urgency to start the season; to show that every match is important, that we're not just waiting for the end of the year or the home games. We want to start this off in the right way, compete the right way from the start.”

Given the dreadful nature of the final preseason game last Saturday, a loss to the Chicago Fire, where that mentality lies could be questioned – that is if preseason games were instructive in any way (hint: they're not).

The match in Utah, where TFC has historically suffered - RSL have won the last seven at home, with TFC's lone win (heck, only points) coming way back in 2007 – will be much more so.

Not just do the raw numbers look terrible, but the matches themselves were depressing. Most recently in 2015, Jackson levelled the match in the 88th minute only for Jordan Allen to then register the game winner.

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

In 2014, Doneil Henry gave up a penalty kick to Alvaro Saborio in the opening 10 minutes. Luis Gil added a second shortly thereafter and Javier Morales set up Saborio's second in the second half.

2012's 3-2 loss was heartbreaking, a Richard Eckersley own goal overcome by a towering Henry header only for Johnny Steele to net a 93rd minute winner. That match saw TFC equal Kansas City's then worst start of an MLS season with a seventh consecutive loss. It would only get worse from there.

That's enough of memory lane to remind that with this history in tow, a strong performance, win or lose, will go a long way towards establishing whether that proper mentality has indeed made the transition from preseason to regular... if this is indeed a new dawn.

Along with the expectations of everybody else, TFC have set lofty goals for themselves. They want to win the Supporters’ Shield, they want the Canadian Championship, they want an MLS Cup.

The 2009 loss could have been a turning point, as it was for Salt Lake, where a struggling franchise grasped the opportunity presented to establish their place amongst MLS' premier clubs.

This season is indeed one of unfinished business and the potential dawn of a new age on the shores of Lake Ontario.

That quest begins on Saturday; should be fun.

Please leave your questions and comments in the section below and the WTR staff will respond in kind.