TORONTO – With Atlanta United lifting the MLS Cup last weekend, the 2018 season is finally done and dusted.
The holidays approach, the days tick down to the New Year, and another season full of promise is on the horizon. February will be here sooner than it feels.
After a magical, treble-winning 2017, this past year was a strange one for Toronto FC, ranging from the highs of the Concacaf Champions League run in the spring to the lows of missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs months later.
For TFC, the aim in 2019 is plain.
“Back to the playoffs, back to a winning record, back amongst the top teams in MLS,” said Club President Bill Manning at the end-of-season press conference. “That's where we need to go. Where we plan to be.
“The expectation for this team is that we're always going to be a contender for championships.”
Veteran defender Drew Moor summed up the mood as the team broke for the offseason: “Things need to be better in 2019.”
“This club, as it should, sets very lofty goals for itself, with the players they bring in, the facilities we have, the fanbase we have and the aspirations we have,” explained Moor. “2018... it's crazy because we're a penalty shootout away from being the first MLS side to win the Champions League, we win the Canadian Championship, but it still feels like a season where we didn't do enough. Everybody feels that way.”
“And that's a good thing,” continued Moor. “We're never satisfied. Even last year, we never felt satisfied regardless of wins, trophies. A hard reset is a good thing for this club. Everybody needs to be sure they rededicate themselves, they look in the mirror, and be sure that they come in here every day, putting everything you have into TFC.”
Disappointment contains the seeds of progress, should one be brave enough to confront those lessons.
“The most important thing about this year is using it to learn and not just say, 'This was a tough year; we'll come back swinging,'” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “That's not what we're doing. We're looking at everything we did, trying to learn from it, understanding and appreciating those mistakes.”
Toronto already plans to instil that knowledge into their approach to preseason and it was announced that they would be in Nevada on February 2 to face Las Vegas Lights FC.
“It's very important that we're all able to learn from this, look at each other, look at ourselves, understand what has to get tweaked to make sure that we're back in a real strong way next year,” stressed TFC captain Michael Bradley. “You can't have the six months that we had and just think that everybody is going to go their separate ways for an offseason, sweep it under the rug, and from day one next year, everything is right again.”
“This is an important stretch for the club across the board,” added Bradley. “There are some big and important decisions to be made, some real honest conversations to be had.”
Having reached the pinnacle the season before, repeating becomes ever more difficult. The goal, having been reached, moves farther away. There are pitfalls to not recognizing that, to not bracing for that challenge.
“After we won last year, we were more relaxed. This can happen,” said Sebastian Giovinco. “We need to make sure next year it doesn't.”
Greg Vanney's side has found themselves in a similar situation before: disappointed in the 2016 MLS Cup defeat, they redoubled their efforts the following season.
“We're in the same position as we were just a year ago: we have to prove everybody wrong,” emphasized Jonathan Osorio. “Everybody [is saying], 'This is the end of an era.'”
“That's not it. I don't believe that's it,” continued Osorio. “We have to come back with that mentality of redemption; be relentless to show we're a top team. Come with this hunger, this eagerness to prove everybody wrong.”
Jason Hernandez put 2018 into context.
“I played for twelve seasons before coming here and maybe competed for a trophy two times,” began Hernandez. “While wearing a TFC jersey, I was competing for five trophies and we won four of them.”
“In the last two years, Toronto FC was slated as a finalist six times; we were two penalty kick shootouts away from having a Champions League trophy and another MLS Cup. There are players, clubs who don't get anywhere near that, in the last five years, the last 10 years,” continued Hernandez. “To think that we've packed that into two years. There are a lot of clubs who would bend over backwards for these last two years. Very happy overall, but obviously disappointed at the moment.”
Having burned through successive brief offseasons, with back-to-back MLS Cup appearances and last season's early Champions League start, for the first time since 2015-16, TFC will have a proper break. Not that that sits well with anyone.
Another early Concacaf start, against Panamanian side CA Independiente de La Chorrera, awaits. Toronto are eager for those matches to come around.
“It's going to be good to have some time off,” said Victor Vazquez. “For me, it's going to be too long, but it is what it is, we have to take it. I'm going to work hard, come back as strong as possible to help the team. I really look forward to it. I want to win Concacaf, it's the first trophy [up for grabs].”
The story doesn't end with being knocked down.
“I like to think we will look back on this season, have learned a lot of lessons, and it then becomes a blip on a franchise that can win another MLS Cup,” foresaw Manning. “We had a great run for two-and-a-half years. Hopefully, two-and-a-half years from now, we say we've had a great five-year run with a little deviation along the way.”