One season ends, another begins.
The 2020 MLS regular season came to a close on Sunday with Decision Day.
A 2-1 loss for Toronto FC away to the New York Red Bulls and a 2-0 win for the Philadelphia Union at home over the New England Revolution saw the Union lift the Supporters’ Shield.
Tom Barlow opened the scoring in the 24th minute when a corner kick slipped through a gap at the near-post and he was able to bundle it over the line at the back-stick. Brian White doubled the hosts advantage four minutes later when another bouncing ball made its way to the left-post for him to tap in from close range.
Tsubasa Endoh pulled one back for TFC, but the equalizer, despite several chances, would not come.
2020 has been a year unlike any other.
“It has been a journey,” reflected Greg Vanney post-match. “These guys, as I said to them before the game, I'm extremely proud of the way they have handled the season.”
“It's been a challenging year in many, many ways for everybody around the world, but just as it relates to our team the challenges of Orlando, trying to get ourselves restarted, to coming back from Orlando and being quarantined for 14 days, and then having to get started up again and then move away from home,” he listed. “Our guys, every single day, came out to training and didn't complain, didn't moan, they just got to work. They found ways to support each other and to get on with it. Dealt with some injuries, but managed to put it out there every single day. There's a couple performances of course that we'd love to have back along the way, but the mentality and the commitment to make the most out of this season has been incredible.”
“There's only two other teams in the league who have any understanding of what we went through as a group,” Vanney continued, referring to the extra strain place on the Canadian teams who were forced to set up camp south of the border. “Both of those teams were battling just to get into the playoffs and we were battling to try to win a Supporters’ Shield. They know how difficult it is, we know how difficult it is. I appreciate what they've gone through, I'm sure they have with us.”
“And I'm so proud of our guys for being there until the end,” he concluded. “With that being said, we are going to be laser-focused on trying to win the MLS Cup.”
Every season has its challenges. Nearly all come with some disappointment.
Teams that overcome them are the ones left standing at the end. It’s about finding that one pillar upon which to set the foundation.
For TFC it is a simple joy, despite the hardships, that reminds them.
“2020 has been an exercise for everybody in learning how to deal with things,” encapsulated Michael Bradley. “Nobody would have predicted so much that's gone on. You can spend all your time worrying about things that aren't perfect or aren't the way they used to be or you can just try to find the right ways to move on and to still push forward.”
“It's been that type of year,” he continued. “For me personally, as a team, as a club, we've tried to get rid of all the excuses, come every day ready to enjoy what we do. When you look at everything going on all around the world, we are very lucky to be able to do what we love – to play football, to train, to compete, to play games.”
“And so, yeah, it's a year where if you wanted to you could find something to complain about every day, but we've really tried hard not to do that and we're excited now for the next few weeks and the playoffs,” Bradley added. “We're going to see if we can be ready to raise our level as the most important games come.”
Down 2-0 in the span of four minutes with news of Philadelphia’s half-time lead filtering in, it would have been easy to give up. Instead, TFC found a way back into the match.
“The second half was a better response,” said Vanney. “We have to recognize sometimes, especially around playoff time and especially when you play these teams that really want to press high, that the game can’t always look as pretty as we want it to look. Sometimes we have to just turn them and put them on their heels and bully them back and move the game into their half of the field and play territory and then we can settle down and play.”
“We created some chances after that – we had the chances to equalize – and the guys fought to the bitter end,” he added. “We weren't going to come away with the Shield today as Philly did their job and won their game, but our guys fought until the end and I'm proud of them.”
Finding the right equilibrium amidst the uncertainty of this year has been difficult.
“We needed to push the game a little bit,” said Bradley of the second 45. “We're a team that wants to have the ball, but we’re always looking for that balance between playing the game on our terms, being patient, and finding the right ways to break teams down, but also in other moments being more direct and more vertical and playing forward quicker.”
“In the second half the bar tilted a little bit towards playing forward a little bit quicker, being more vertical, more direct and that led to a lot of interesting situations. We pushed hard for a good stretch in the second half,” continued the captain. “We're still trying to get guys back fit and healthy and find that perfect balance of what we need to be like when the playoffs come.”
Just in time for the post-season two familiar faces were back in the mix.
Jonathan Osorio, who missed the last three games, was in the starting lineup and Jozy Alidore, who last featured on October 3, came on for the final half-hour of action.
“It's important,” levelled Vanney of getting them back on the field. “Those are two key guys for us every season, no different this year.”
“Oso hasn't been away from the lineup much, but it's getting up to speed, getting his legs under him, getting that playoff mentality rolling again and this is a good game against a good opponent to do that,” explained the coach. “It was just good to get Jozy back on the field. [He] has been out quite a bit longer, so a little bit is just the competitive spirit being on the field again, to get some fitness under him, soccer fitness. He trained all week, had a good strong week of training, getting him connected to the group.”
“There will be times in the playoffs where we'll want to play with two forwards,” Vanney added. “And so getting him connected to Ayo [Akinola] was something that we wanted to accomplish today.”
While the regular season is over, 2020 is not. There is still silverware to be awarded.
The MLS Cup Playoffs begin on November 20 with a pair of Eastern Conference Play-In Round matches where Nashville SC will host Inter Miami CF and the New England Revolution the Montreal Impact.
TFC will face the higher remaining seed of the two teams left standing shortly thereafter – date and time yet to be set.
The Shield is gone, nobody is excited about that, but more remains to be played for.
“We're a competitive group and we hold ourselves to high standards. We had big hopes coming in today that we could come here, win, and that maybe New England could do us a favour and we could still walk away with the Supporters’ Shield, but it didn't happen,” said Bradley. “For the last however many years, we've been a team that has tried to step on the field and win every game, regardless of who we played, regardless of where, we set out every year to be a team that can compete for the Shield.”
“But the reality is also that once the regular season ends you have to quickly understand that everything starts over and while the Supporters’ Shield means a lot and is certainly something that is important to us as a club, everybody also understands that the reality is still the biggest prize is MLS Cup,” he continued. “It's the one that everyone remembers.”
“And so whether you win the Shield or not, you have to be ready to quickly reset and quickly understand that everybody starts from zero and nothing is given in the playoffs, nothing comes easy,” Bradley reminded. “The mentality and the feeling inside the group is that we’ve got to get ourselves ready for two-and-a-half weeks from now when everything is on the line.”