TORONTO – The 90 minutes, and the glory that comes with it, are there for all to see. But it's what happens the rest of the week where that success is earned.
The 11 that start and those who come on from the bench earn the plaudits on the day, but behind them, willing them on from behind the scenes, are the efforts of the rest of the club.
“What a lot of people see is only what happens on Saturday,” said Greg Vanney after training on Tuesday. “They don't have the opportunity to see what happens on a day-to-day basis here in training and how the competition level is high.”
“When we divide the group up, there is no given on who is going to win. Everybody is working hard to improve themselves, each other, and the team,” continued Vanney, who in last season's playoff run repeatedly stressed the importance of the contributions of the shadow team that mimicked the upcoming opponent in training to achieving results. “That's vital for the long-term success of a club and also the success in a season.”
Take Jason Hernandez, for example, who came on early in Saturday's win over Portland when Nick Hagglund was forced off with a left MCL sprain.
“Jason has been unbelievable, on the field and off,” said Michael Bradley post-match. “He's come in, added to our group. It's like he's been here since day one.”
“The only thing he cares about is the team,” continued Bradley. “He's a competitor, comes in every day ready to train, whether he's playing or on the bench, he's always ready. These are the types of guys that make the difference for you. We've been really lucky to have him and he's played a huge role for us this year.”
For his part, Hernandez, who joined Toronto FC in the off-season, admitted the changed role is 'difficult'.
“This is the first time in my career I'm not playing every week,” said Hernandez after the win. “It's a mental challenge to prepare yourself not knowing if you are going to see the field. Keeping yourself fit, keeping yourself sharp, to be ready at any time. Luckily, I'm with some guys that push each other every day, every week. When it was time to step on the field, I was ready.”
Hernandez relishes his contributions.
“Defending is my job; I'm a defender. My goals come from keeping the [opponent] off the board, from game-saving tackles, from wins. To me those are goals,” smiled Hernandez, asked about his fist-pump celebrations of key interventions. “Anytime I make a play that makes a difference in the game, it gets me excited. I can't help it.”
His decision to come to Toronto, and be a role player for a team on the verge of greatness, was a 'conscious' one.
“I could be a part of team that was going to scrap for a playoff spot, a team that was trying to build something, be a guy that plays every weekend. I've done that for a long time, on plenty of teams,” explained Hernandez. "Or there is an opportunity to be a part of a team that was right there at the promised land and just came up a little bit short, a little bit unlucky. To be part of that and push over the hump.”
“There isn't another team in [MLS] that can look down their roster, down their bench, and bring in the quality that this team does,” added Hernandez. “For me it was a different type of challenge. I've been a guy to play week in, week out. Now it's can I help push the team on and off the field in a good way and contribute when I'm called upon. It's a different type of challenge, but one I'm enjoying.”
Toronto has not lost any of the six matches Hernandez has appeared in, winning all but one.
Hernandez noted that though a rarity in MLS, this surfeit of talent in Toronto is the norm the world over: “In the big clubs around the world, there are guys on the bench and you say, 'Wow, that guy is on the bench? [Even] he can't play there?' When you're part of a big club, a powerful team, that's the way it goes. You just have to bide your time and feel good that you are a part of something special.”
Goalkeeper Clint Irwin is another such example, doing his part away from the match day spotlight.
“Clint is a tremendous professional,” praised Jon Conway, TFC's goalkeeper coach. “The effort that he puts in training, his attitude, and how good he's been in training. He's been around; he knows what it takes. I wish we could get him more minutes, but it's tough with how well we're doing.”
In five MLS matches this season, Irwin has allowed just three goals against, collecting two clean-sheets; he has not lost a league game in 2017.
“It's a long season; it's easy for guys to get frustrated when they're not getting a lot of minutes,” allowed Vanney. “It's a real credit to our guys who stick with it, take their opportunities when they get them. Guys don't step out and perform unless they're working hard in training every day; that's what prepares them.”
That's why it's called a club; why they have a squad. It takes all the pieces to complete the puzzle.
“There is a group of guys that understand the situation here – with the group that we have, the chance to be very successful: that every little detail that they are able to help with, that they can do to make themselves better, ends up making the group better,” explained Conway. “That [attitude] is invaluable.”
“Clint, Jason, [to name but a few of many] have been extremely good, not only out on the field, getting the results that we need, but in the locker room, on the practice field,” added Conway. “Driving, making themselves better; pushing the people around them to get better.”