TORONTO – In anticipation of the latest installment of TorontoFC.ca’s Match of the Week, the mind is cast back once again to 2017.
It was quite the year after all.
Last week saw a look back at the emphatic Trillium Cup clinching 5-0 win over Columbus Crew SC at the end of May, a game that signaled what was to come. This week moves forward in the season, to what is traditionally known as the summer grind in MLS.
The regular season, usually, is long and hard.
It has its own internal rhythms, patterns that echo the seasons: the first steps of the early campaign in late winter – though the Concacaf Champions League can wreak its havoc there; the build up of fixtures as spring emerges and the season takes on a more rapid pace; the grind of summer, long days, hot, odd breaks for international competition. Then comes the fall sprint to the finish line before the MLS Cup Playoffs are set.
This August 12 encounter with the Portland Timbers fits squarely in the middle of that summer grind.
June that year saw a break for the 2017 Gold Cup. Toronto sailed into it with just two losses through 15 matches. The promise of what would come was there, but much work remained to be done.
Looking back, Justin Morrow can only smile.
“It was an amazing season,” recalled Morrow on Thursday’s Footy Talks Live. “For me personally and for the team; one that I'll never forget and that I enjoyed talking about.”
Morrow was in fine form that year.
A career season. He would conclude the campaign with 8 goals, three more than his previous career best the year earlier. His brace against the Timbers perhaps the signature moment of his season.
According to the defender, there were several reasons:
“First of all, the talent that we had on the team,” Morrow explained. “Being a wing-back, I had three strong centre-backs behind me at all times. That gave me the freedom to really get forward and push into the attack.”
“And then in the attack we had guys that could dribble past people, guys that can shoot from distance, and guys that could pass accurately over long distances,” he continued. “When you have those things, it opens up so much space all over the field and keeps the opposing defense off balance.”
“And then the formation just fit me perfectly,” added Morrow of Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2 that year. “I’m able to do a lot of different things on the field, but one of my best qualities by far is my engine, being able to get up and down the field. That role was suited perfectly for me.”
But it was also some offseason reading that flipped a switch for the defender/attacker.
“I read one of Pep Guardiola’s books, talking about Thomas Muller not really fitting in,” recalled Morrow. “They have this term ‘Raumdeuter’ – basically translates, ‘space interpreter.’”
“And I said, ‘Oh my God! This is exactly what I can do,’” spotted Morrow. “When [Muller] finds space on the field, he runs into it and it’s about the timing and the connection with his teammates. That's what I did all year. There was space all over the field for me and I just exploited it.”
Having gone into the international break on a loss, Toronto came out well enough with a pair of wins while defeating the Montreal Impact in the finals of the Canadian Championship to lift the Voyageurs Cup, but July began with a loss away to FC Dallas. A win in Orlando would follow, but then came a tough run, the grind.
July 19 draw away to NYCFC; July 22 draw at home against the Colorado Rapids. TFC would win big over NYCFC at BMO Field to close the month, but come August 5 and a visit to the swamps of D.C. United they were lucky to eek out a 1-1 result.
Then came the home match against Portland.
“In the first half of the season we had only lost two games,” recalled Morrow. “Leading up to this game we tied three of our last four, so there's a little bit of tension in the team. We had just gone to D.C. and we tied 1-1, which was kind of a fortunate result. And so I remember this week of practice was tense.”
“The first half Portland was playing defensive, but we had a couple of chances. One big one I remember was Victor [Vazquez] floated a ball over the top and put me behind the defense,” he continued. “I was indecisive: at the last second I decided not to shoot, but to knock it across the goal for Jozy [Altidore] – he was wide open in the box – but I missed him.”
“So we go into halftime 0-0 and guys are pissed because we know that first goal is really going to open them up. Seba [Giovinco] makes a comment, like, ‘We cannot miss that pass.” I’m [thinking], ‘I cannot let these guys down. I have to make a play in this game because I messed that up.’”
Morrow would open the scoring 13 minutes after the restart.
“And you can see my emotion after I score coming out,” he noted. “It just shows the mentality of our team. Our demands on ourselves were so high that year.”
“We won the game 4-1 and I scored two goals, Greg came into the locker room afterwards to say his speech, he said, ‘Congrats on the win, but I think we know that we're better than that. And to win trophies we're going to have to be better than that,’” Morrow revealed. “And I’m thinking, ‘We just won 4-1....’ But that’s how we were that year. We were just never satisfied.”