One of the harsh realities of professional sports is that there is only one good way for a season to end.
In MLS every team starts out with the hope that they will be the ones left lifting the cup at the end of the year. All but one will eventually be disappointed.
Toronto FC’s hopes ended a few weeks ago when they were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
“In the end, it’s disappointing for sure,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley during Wednesday’s end of season media day. “But anyone who has been around here or anyone who has followed things closely over the last few years knew that it was going to be a challenging year.”
“We knew that there were going to be a lot of different things thrown at us, a lot of different moving parts. As competitors, you hope to be able to overcome them,” he continued. “We had stretches where we were able to do some of that, but in the end, we weren't able to be good enough, consistent enough, and we weren't able yet to get ourselves over the hump and take the big step.”
On the heels of two pandemic stricken seasons, years that saw an unbelievable amount of upheaval at the club – the departure of Greg Vanney, the tenures of Chris Armas and Javier Pérez, too many departures and arrivals to list – the hope was that with the appointment of Bob Bradley and the dawn of a new era that all of that would be left in the past.
It’s never quite that simple.
YEAR-END MEDIA AVAILABILITY | Bob Bradley - October 12, 2022
“It was a strange year,” began Michael Bradley, walking through the campaign. “Start the season with a new team, a young team. Given a lot of the changes at the end of last year and given that Lorenzo [Insigne] and Mimmo [Domenico Criscito] weren't coming until midway through, a lot of the younger guys are going to get some real opportunities.”
“We played a pretty good, solid first game in Dallas, came back here and let the game get away from us in the home opener against Red Bull. Went to Columbus, weren't able to come away with anything and then we had a four game stretch where we took 10 points – played D.C. at home, New York City at home, Salt Lake away, and Philly at home,” he detailed. “And then we lost five in a row.”
“That was a weird stretch,” Bradley continued. “NYCFC was playing very well at the time, we went there, went ahead 1-0, and then we didn't play well in the second half and let the game get away from us. And then at home against Cincinnati we give away a goal on a corner kick and a long throw in just before and just after halftime. The game in Cincinnati we go down early and then Ralph [Priso] gets sent off after like three or four minutes. In Vancouver, play alright, we miss a penalty, Jayden [Nelson] scores what is a good goal, they take it back and then we ended up losing at the end. And then Orlando, missing a bunch of guys, we give away a goal at the end on a set-piece.”
“My point, even at the beginning of the year with a new team, with a young team, we still found a way on a lot of days to be right there,” he highlighted. “And when we needed to be able to make a little bit of our own luck, when we needed to be able to make a play, finish a game off, whatever, we weren't quite able to do that. “
“We come out of that and now you're getting closer to the time where Lorenzo and Mimmo are coming, there starts to be whispers that Federico [Bernardeschi] is coming as well. And what happens then is inside the team guys like Carlos [Salcedo] and Alejandro [Pozuelo], they know that as guys are coming in, they're probably going out. To their credit both were fantastic guys and played as hard as they could until the last second, but that's a strange dynamic,” Bradley progressed. “And then now, halfway through the year, we change our team a little bit. There's a period where now Lorenzo is here, but not fit. Now we're waiting. We dropped some points at home that ended up really hurting us – we lose to Columbus at home, we play a good game against San Jose and let them score, 2-2, right at the end. But then starting with Charlotte at home we have a stretch where we played pretty well and we're taking good points and we think we're going in a good direction and, again, we can't quite take the big step forward.”
That elusive ‘big step forward,’ a point Bradley has mentioned to before.
“What does that mean? It means that when you're playing against the Galaxy at home and you go down 1-0, now in the second half you push as hard as we do and you play as well as we do and you get to 1-1 and you get to 2-1, that you win the game,” he stressed, answering his own question. “The difference between one point and three, it's only two points, but mentally the difference if you can come back and win a game like that, that’s big.”
“A few days later you play Montreal at home, play a very good first 20 minutes or so, some mistakes cost us. We had moments where we felt like we were right on the cusp of taking a big step and feel like we can push ourselves over the hump, but we weren't able to,” Bradley underlined. “It's a long-winded way of saying, ‘Yeah, we have to get better.’ We have to take stock of where we are, of who's here, of going forward who wants to be here, who's excited by what we're doing? Who's excited by the challenge of trying to take where we are and build something that can be real and special? Every team in the league will be looking to do the same, but that's where we are.”
YEAR-END MEDIA AVAILABILITY | Michael Bradley - October 12, 2022
It was always likely to be a season of change.
The TFC that began the season is not the one that ended it. While it takes time to rebuild a roster – much, but not all, of that work has been done – it takes even more for that new side to define and hone an identity.
TFC President Bill Manning was straight-forward on that: “I don't think we've established the identity, culture, that Bob wants. We're going through that process right now.”
“There's a lot of good and hardworking people here. Being back in this facility has been a massive difference. Starting in July and August you started to feel the vibe again, players came in and you’re winning,” he continued. “Lorenzo’s family situation took a lot of air out of the room, everyone felt that. ‘All for One’ is the goal: to get a club that everyone is aligned from players to the coaches to the staff. That is what we're trying to build again.”
Identity is a big word. It encompasses a lot of different elements.
For Bob Bradley there are two major parts.
“One has to do with the identity of the team with the city, with the fans, a culture,” he began. “That part is there. When you go through some bad seasons the commitment to get it right is to make sure that that part of the identity is going to continue in a good way. That’s a challenge.”
“The other part is how you play,” continued the coach. “We had moments this year where we found ways to step up and play in the other team’s half and win balls and be dangerous and create some chances. We never felt that we are just going to be a team that tries to high press from start to finish, 90 plus minutes a game, no.”
YEAR-END MEDIA AVAILABILITY | Bill Manning - October 12, 2022
“We're always trying to figure out how can we find moments to, when we lose balls, win it back quickly? How can we still press in different moments, but can we also be smart enough in other moments that we organize ourselves, don't chase all over? What goes hand-in-hand with that is can we be good enough with the ball that we can find some balance between controlling games and creating chances,” Bradley explained. “The work at the end of the season is to look hard at all of that, right?”
“The easiest thing to say about our season is we gave up too many goals – that's the simplest, easiest thing,” he continued. “Then you have to start to understand how we gave up goals. Did we give up goals where we actually were in good position, but we made individual mistakes? Did we have goals where the way we tried to go forward we left ourselves in bad position? We are trying to get a balance on all of those things and understand how we can be more complete.”
“There are elements of what took place this year that are positive. I can pick goals, I can pick halves, I can pick games,” Bradley added. “Take a game like Portland (a 3-1 win at BMO Field on August 13) – that was a pretty complete game for us. Not perfect because we let them back into it and then we needed Lorenzo's goal and Fede’s goal to finish 3-1, but overall we didn't give up too much, we had a pretty good level of control; that was a pretty complete game for us. We need more of those kinds of games.”
“We had periods of something that I hope our fans can say, ‘Man, that kind of looks like football, that's exciting, that can be good to watch,’” he highlighted. “There were more of those at home. We haven't proven yet that we're a solid enough, consistent enough team when we travel. We still in too many cases don't have the mentality to know how to win those games. There were a few moments in that little stretch – Nashville away, Charlotte away – those are decent away wins, but those are things that have to improve. Elements of what we started will continue and then in other moments you think how are we going to improve upon this.”
There is much work to be done. 2023 will be here before too long.
Michael Bradley is already looking forward to it: “What makes you excited for next year is that after two seasons of playing in MLS is Back in Orlando and then Hartford and empty stadiums and then Orlando and then half full stadiums is that the atmosphere and the feel of BMO was back in a huge way this year.”
“We feel that; that makes such a difference. And then when you combine that with the good moments of football that we had,” he added. “We have to get better. You guys know me by now, you'd look at me like I was crazy if I tried to sit up here after that season and say that we're right there. No, we have work to do. We know that.”
“We knew that before the year as well,” closed the captain. “Did we all hope that we'd have a little bit more to show for ourselves at the end of this year? 1000% But again, the work was the work and it's still the work.”