Club América’s Andrés Ibargüen skipped past a couple of Toronto FC players and delivered a slicing cross into the middle. In a flash, Paul Aguilar dove through the air and connected with the ball, a vicious header that looked destined to find itself into the back of the Toronto net.
Somehow, in that very same split second, Toronto keeper Alex Bono got a hand to it, deflecting the ball harmlessly away from goal for a corner kick. A stunned Club America player offered him a fist bump for his efforts.
Since making his first start in 2016, the 23-year-old Bono has made a lot of saves in a Toronto FC kit. In MLS regular season play alone he has made 118. But none has been more impressive than that rejection of Aguilar’s header.
It wasn’t just the incredible acrobatics that made the save so impressive, it was the context. It was the fact that the save came in the 28th minute of a Concacaf Champions League semi-final in one of the continent’s most hostile environments.
Increasingly, this has become when Alex Bono does his best work. In big games, when Toronto FC needs a save, Bono always seems to be there. He was arguably Toronto’s playoff MVP last season and was Toronto’s best player in this year’s CCL semi-finals as well.
Just look, for a second, at the shot chart from Tuesday’s match including shots on target, blocked shots and shots off target. There were 29 in total during what was an incredibly busy night for the Toronto keeper. He made six saves, all that beat him was a late penalty kick.
Bono has been getting more of a look from the U.S. men’s national team of late, and they have to be interested in a performance like that at the Azteca. He was incredibly calm under the circumstances, an attitude that seemed infectious amongst his teammates.
What adds to the narrative behind Bono’s performance is a story out of preseason. According to the Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson, when Toronto FC met Club América before the season in a friendly, they told Greg Vanney that “you can’t win with that goalkeeper,” referring to Bono.
They evidently hadn’t done their homework, because TFC had already won plenty with Bono. In fact, they probably don’t lift MLS Cup if Bono doesn’t rob Bradley Wright-Phillips in the second leg of the Conference semi-finals. They probably don’t win either if Bono doesn’t make a number of key saves away at the Columbus Crew.
Likewise, who knows whether or not Toronto escape the Azteca if Bono allows that early goal. They certainly wouldn’t have gone in their with as much confidence and security if he hadn’t stopped Henry Martin late in the first leg. What we do know is what those saves have secured Toronto FC: an MLS Cup and a first ever Concacaf Champions League final berth.
All of those saves have been byproducts of Bono’s strengths as a goalkeeper, namely his shot stopping abilities. His reflexes are off the charts, as were clearly evidenced by the save on Aguilar. He is also very good in 1-on-1 situations, giving the shooter as little area as possible to shoot and all but eliminating low shots with his ability to get to the ground quickly.
Coupled with his growing confidence and continued control of his area Bono continues to show signs of growth as a keeper this season. Toronto doesn’t always ask all that much of him; they had one of the lowest expected goals against (xGA) last season. But when they do need him Bono always seems to bail them out.
That isn’t to say, at just 23, that he doesn’t still have plenty of room to improve. Tuesday’s draw with Club América was also a display of one of the main weaknesses in Bono’s game: his distribution. Toronto’s passing as a team in that match wasn’t great, just 62 per cent in a largely defensive effort, but Bono’s lack of accuracy on goal kicks did allow Club America to recycle possession and keep Toronto pinned back under pressure.
Of the 20 most played keepers in Major League Soccer last season, Bono had the second-worst pass accuracy (48.3), only Tyler Deric of the Houston Dynamo was worse with a shocking 37.5 per cent. That group of keepers averaged 59.3 per cent pass accuracy.
However, it is worth noting that highly touted young keepers like Andre Blake (55.2 per cent in 2017) and Bill Hamid (49.1), also struggled to distribute the ball. It is a skill that is learned over time, and also one that is helped greatly by a team with good aerial presence, which Toronto doesn’t really possess through the midfield and forward group.
It’s possible, probable in fact, that those weaknesses would shine through even more if Bono was playing for a team who were less defensively sound. But there is an argument to be made too about the difficulty of what Bono is often able to pull off: big saves after limited action. Ask any Canadian World Junior hockey goalie, mentally that isn’t easy.
But Bono seems to have mastered the ability to make those saves. Just like Jozy Altidore’s penchant for scoring goals when it matters most, it has become a crucial factor in the equation and that results in Toronto FC’s dominance across the board.