How Toronto's success is transcending Major League Soccer

The comparisons go beyond one league. The Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors -- those are the examples TFC must follow.

In a league in which Toronto FC has distanced itself from the pack and only history can provide a point of comparison, Reds coach Greg Vanney had to reach outside the bounds of MLS to find a precedent for how his team will approach the season’s final months.

Vanney is as honest a coach as there is in MLS, willing to chew on any question a reporter throws his way and spit out an answer that is robust, insightful and educational. After 20 minutes of just such a discussion with FourFourTwo, Vanney pondered one last question: Whether his team will, or should, go for it all: the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup and a potential record for most points in a season.

In the downstairs elevator bank of a posh hotel just south of the Loop in Chicago, Vanney sat forward slightly in his chair and started to talk about a team that once played a couple miles away. The historic 1995-96 Chicago Bulls season had for more than a decade been the standard for the greatest-ever discussion in the NBA. It wasn’t until the Golden State Warriors vanquished that mark in 2015-16 that any team had come close.

But taking down the Bulls may have come at a cost. Golden State had been so focused on the Bulls’ regular-season record for wins, Vanney explained, that some around the organization wondered if they had expended too much energy. The Warriors, of course, broke the mark but fell short in the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They may have the best record regular-season history in NBA, but could they really be considered the greatest?

Did Golden State’s failures provide an example for Vanney to follow? Toronto FC was clear of its rivals then, and has only distanced itself more since. With 59 points through 28 games, it sits just 10 points away from breaking the MLS record for points in a season, with six games to go. The Supporters’ Shield is all but wrapped up. MLS Cup awaits on the back end of a postseason that almost always surprises.

With the MLS record for points within reach – set by the 1998 LA Galaxy (68 points) and, in the post-shootout era, 2011 Galaxy (67 points) – would it be foolish for Toronto to lose sight of the ultimate goal, MLS Cup, because it was blinded by the record books?

Perhaps.

Vanney smiled.

“We’re still going to go for everything,” he said.

From worst to first

For nine years, Toronto FC was a potential power that perennially tripped over itself. That isn’t lost on anyone around the club, nor is the fact that TFC is now in conversations about potentially historic dominance in the 22-year-old league. With that, the pressure to win has turned into pressure to make the playoffs, and now, the pressure to win a championship.

Behind a leadership triumvirate of Vanney, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and president Bill Manning, Toronto FC is now the model for how to build a team in the Designated Player era. It is a process that requires communication across multiple platforms, Vanney said, and most importantly, a mutual respect for every person involved in scouting, signing and integrating players.

Those methods have led to some of the biggest signings in league history – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and, most notably, Sebastian Giovinco – as well as some savvy pickups that have pushed TFC over the top. This year, it was the addition of former Barcelona midfielder Victor Vazquez that may have taken TFC from good to great.

Toronto also has the deepest roster in MLS.

“When Bez, myself, Bill came in, it’s talking about succession planning and looking at our roster and how it will transition year-to-year over three years, or over five years, and trying to be a team that can sustain success for more than one to two years, but to try to stay on the top as long as we can,” Vanney said. “Some of that comes from development within, in the academies and the young players you have in the draft, and some of it is obviously through scouting and trying to find the right guys. Ultimately, I think we’ve done a good job on all of those which has led us to having good depth in our team.”

The team also needed time to instill its identity. That involved tactical tweaks – a move to the 3-5-2 last year for the playoffs has turned into a full-time formation – and highs and lows within a season that create the makeup of a team.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley pointed to a game last season in San Jose when the team lost despite having a two-man advantage as a turning point, of sorts. From that point forward, Bradley said, Toronto played and acted as if it was the best team in the league. That “in a league where margins are so tight, we had found a way to put everything together so that our margin was bigger than most teams.”

It nearly paid off with a championship, only to fall short in penalties in the final. That experience, too, added to the mentality of a team that now stands comfortably above the rest of the MLS table.

“Nobody feels good about the way last season finished,” Bradley said. “It’s still about the team that gets to hold up the trophy at the end of the season. It’s two-fold: There is obviously huge, huge disappointment in not having rewarded ourselves with the ultimate, but the flip side is that we feel like the experiences along the way have given us so much. In some ways, the value of those experiences –  the highs, the lows, the big moments, the excitement of the big moments, the disappointment and the heartbreak of the finish – means that we have a group that has lived a lot together.”

Day 1 – December 12, 2016

Toronto’s dominant season officially opened on Saturday, March 4, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. Bradley insists the campaign started months before the whistle sounded for kickoff in Utah.

Less than an hour after losing in the shootout at home, Bradley stood surrounded by reporters in the home locker room trying to process the mercilessness of the beautiful game. He spoke that night with intent as he usually does, pausing often to find the exact right words to communicate his thoughts.

“It can be a cruel game sometimes,” Bradley said in the whisper-quiet room, letting the words hang for eight seconds before speaking again. “The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it. We talked about that before the game … and we did that.”

Two days later in the team’s headquarters, emotions still raw, Bradley had come closer to an idea of how he wanted to move forward. So, too, had his teammates.  The conversations happened all around the building – with teammates in the locker room, with coaches in offices, as groups and in one-on-ones. They didn’t fall too far from the message he delivered to his teammates before the final, and the one he relayed to reporters after it.

The way forward was to go for it.

“When the dust settled, it was very, very clear what we needed to be about and what we were going to be about this year,” Bradley said. “With all of the experiences we’ve had, with the quiet confidence I think we have, there is also a real understanding that we are who we are because we’ve committed to going for it and in a fearless, aggressive way. Every chance we get, going after it. And the second our foot comes off the gas a tiny bit, we’re nowhere close to what we can be.”

It has fueled every performance this season, that fearlessness playing out with a confidence and swagger reminiscent of those 95-96 Bulls and 15-16 Warriors. It has been evident in beatdowns like the 5-0 win over Columbus in May, the 4-0 victory over NYCFC in August and the most recent 4-0 result against San Jose last weekend. It has been just as present in a midweek win in the heat in Orlando, or the 3-0 Wednesday-night win over Philadelphia, which was sandwiched between huge Eastern Conference games against Chicago and rival Montreal. It has been there every game. The foot always pressing down on the gas.

It will define Toronto FC’s season and how it finishes it. The team will win trophies for it, or it may fail to do so in spite of it. Or, like the Warriors, TFC will fall short of history because of it.

And that’s just fine with them.

It was the path Toronto chose in the shadow of one defeat with the knowledge it was the only way to turn a harsh ending into the start of something better. You can’t win anything without a mentality built on trying to win everything.

“In the end, where does that leave us? I don’t know,” Bradley said. “But in the meantime, I don’t think you’ll find anybody who is worried about what the perception could or will be at the end if we do this or don’t do that. You play to compete, you play to play in the biggest games, in the biggest moments; you play to win, you play to hold up trophies. That’s what it’s all about.”

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