TORONTO – Five games.
That is all that remains for Toronto FC in the 2018 MLS regular season.
With the defeat in New York on Saturday and results elsewhere going against them once again, only the sixth and final berth in the Eastern Conference, currently held by the Montreal Impact, is within reach.
Though odds of making up the ten-point gap are long, until the math proves insurmountable, there is only one thought at the BMO Training Ground.
“We're still very much in this playoff picture,” said Alex Bono. “We have two home games coming up, we put two wins on the board, some results go our way, and we're right on the cusp of pulling this thing off.”
“If you look at how the season has gone, some people would say [we] don't have a chance, but for us we've got two games at home: a New England that is fighting for playoffs as well and a Vancouver team that is a Canadian rivalry,” continued Bono. “Two tough games, we get to play them in front of our home fans and if we take care of our business, one of these team is bound to slip up at some point. That might be all we need to push over the edge, gain some momentum going down the stretch.”
The mood in training on Tuesday, according to Greg Vanney, was, “professional.”
“Everybody knows that what we have in front of us is five games, win the first one, keep ourselves in the mix, and as long as we keep winning we put pressure on other teams to get results. That's the best we can do at this point,” explained Vanney. “Everybody wants to finish the season up, no matter how long it goes, on a positive note even though it's been a struggle this year: guys can healthy, get back on the field, and we can finish with some semblance of our team out on the field competing until the end.”
The 2-0 defeat against the New York Red Bulls this weekend was emblematic of the year it has been for TFC.
“For long stretches of the game we competed well enough to get a result,” said Bono. “Sometimes it's just not your day. We've had a lot of those this year.”
At the home of a side competing for the Supporters' Shield and the top of the East, Toronto went toe-to-toe with the Red Bulls.
“We went into the game, had good control,” recalled Vanney. “The first 15 minutes or so, their pressure was always going to be there, but after 20-25 minutes we started to get control. In terms of our performances in New York, in their home stadium and turning the game more in our vision and away from theirs, it was one of our better days of being able take them out of their game.”
The return of Chris Mavinga to the starting XI was a positive, but with Sebastian Giovinco out and Jozy Altidore forced off, it was more of the revolving door that has plagued Toronto this season.
“It's been one of those years,” said Vanney.
Since the end of April, little has gone to plan.
“Losing is never fun,” reminded Bono. “None of us want to go out and lose, are OK with it, with going out there and making mistakes. That's not fun for us.”
“Whether it be the staff saying that's not good enough or outside voices, we know that. It's not our goal to go out and be mediocre,” continued Bono. “The game becomes less fun when you're losing, less fun when sometimes you're the reason that you're losing.”
That weighs on a player and on a team.
For Bono, an invite to the U.S. camp earlier this month was a chance to reset and refocus.
“It was a vote of confidence, a little bit of separation that was good for me,” said Bono. “I was able to go into a different environment, with a different staff, different players around me and focus on daily training, taking care of myself off the field, and it came at perfect time.”
“I still consider myself a young professional, everything that I do is a learning experience, whether it be good or bad, I'll watch it over, as painful as it may be or as much as it might get me excited, and I'll learn from it,” continued Bono. “That's part of growing as a player, expanding yourself as a professional.”
Pre-match conversations with his father provided the reminder that he needed to get back in the right frame of mind.
“He's always, since I was in school, went with one tag line: 'Let the game come to you,'” recounted Bono. “Play within yourself, you don't have to do anything spectacular, don't have to play outside of who you are to help the team.”
“The thing I started to focus on starting the [LA] Galaxy game was: go out there and enjoy yourself. When we score celebrate, smile. When you make a save, smile. Use that to help you refocus and give yourself little bits of confidence throughout the game,” added Bono. “I've been focusing on that, getting back to enjoying what I'm doing, what we're doing. There no reason why we can't turn this around still, string a couple wins together, things become fun again and you're right back in it.”