How does one do justice to a year and a season like this past one?
Throughout it all, words failed to convey just how difficult it was for the players and staff isolated far from home and they fail at encapsulating how disappointing the end, a 1-0 loss to Nashville SC in Round One of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, was for Toronto FC.
Locker Cleanout Day is an annual tradition.
At the end of the year, no matter how it ended, a select group of players and the front office sits down with the media to digest the events of the preceding months.
This year was no different, except the press conferences turned into a series of Zoom calls, as is the way of the world these days. Greg Vanney, Ali Curtis, and Bill Manning will have a similar event next week.
But it wasn’t the first time the team had to digest what had transpired.
Post-match both Greg Vanney and Michael Bradley referenced an upcoming team dinner that took place before the flight back to Toronto on Tuesday night as when the group would really dig in, discuss and analyze what had happened.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
“Personally, I was down,” said Jonathan Osorio. “It was tough. It was a tough way to end the season.”
“From everything that we were dealing with we handled ourselves really, really well and we put ourselves in such a good position,” he explained. “Not many teams can do what we did: fighting for the Supporters’ Shield all the way to the end. We get a ‘home’ playoff game in Hartford, Connecticut, in pretty tough conditions against a team that's very defensive... all those things you think about after and it's tough. It's tough to swallow.”
“The dinner is dinner, life has to go on, guys are picking each other up and looking forward to whatever happens next,” Osorio continued. “I don't know what's going to happen next year, I just know that the club, we're going to look to get better, each and everybody that's here. And we're going to look to contend again next year.”
Having endured a hectic schedule, with only small breaks to fly home, hug the family, and head back out on the road, Toronto had braced for another three weeks in Connecticut. Instead, they were forced to return prematurely.
“It's very hard to close up a season all together, to say goodbye,” encapsulated Quentin Westberg. “It's the second time I’ve lived it and basically we're all separated after we get down the plane and we go through customs and everyone goes their different ways. For sure it was emotional, for sure we shared a lot this year, we would have loved to take it further, but at the end of the day we can all look at each other straight in the eyes and know that we did our best.”
“We gave it our all and only us can really materialize what we had to go through,” he elaborated. “We shared our experiences, we were asked about it, people around the league were conscious of it, but they didn't really live it. Most guys were objective enough to realize and to let the pain and frustration away really fast, to realize it was really challenging and that ultimately everyone showed up.”
Still, what could have been hung in the air.
“The playoff run that we had last year had us really wanting to get that same feeling,” Westberg confided, recalling the surprise 2019 MLS Cup run. “This is also the disappointment, not living this as a group, because we felt we deserved it with everything we had to go through.”
“There was a mix of emotions,” he added. “But also understanding, and in some ways calm – to not be over frustrated. To be very disappointed, to know that the standards are high, but also we have shared so much, we have been through quite a lot as a group, and I think it was, all in all, a precise and fair atmosphere.”
Happy to be home, that is no consolation for missing out on a fourth MLS Cup run in five years.
“We wanted to extend it longer, as long as possible,” said Chris Mavinga of the bittersweet departure from their base in East Hartford. “That didn't happen.”
“The place was good. The hotel, the field, everything was perfect for us to make a good run through the playoffs, but it was tough being away. We are also happy to be home, but we wanted to do our best on the field.”
“This season, if we would have gone to the final, it would have been more proud because it was a very, very tough year and our situation was not that usual,” he added. “But we have to look forward and learn from it and see if we can do better than we did this year.”
Back in September, when the full force of the make-up schedule was bearing down on TFC, a message emerged. Vanney, amongst others, voiced it clearly: the difficulty became the motivation. If the club were to endure such circumstances, winning it all would be the aim.
Now, in the cold light of day, that sting hurts more.
“It does, it sure does,” levelled Gonzalez. “No one really knows how hard it was, other than the guys who were there, living it. We just kept telling ourselves we want to do this so that it would have all been worth it.”
“And so when you don't meet your goals, it hurts,” he continued. “We have a club that sets high standards and no one's happy here. We all want more, we all wanted more. And so everyone will come back next year ready to get going.”
“We need this break because it's been difficult for everyone mentally, physically, it's been hard, but we're all competitors, we all love winning,” Gonzalez added. “We know that we can give more to this club, to this city, to these fans, and we want to do that.”
Hours after Toronto’s loss, the first-placed seed in the East, the Philadelphia Union, would also succumb to the long layoff, losing to the New England Revolution, who like Nashville had a Play-In Round match to gear up and opening up a less daunting path to the final.
Such possibilities haunt.
“Do I think we could have moved past Nashville? Of course. Do I think we have the personnel to have won that game? Of course,” replied Omar Gonzalez. “Things could have [gone] differently, but ultimately, we didn't do it.”
“Nashville had a good game plan and they beat us in Hartford. And now looking at the way things are shaking out we could have done more, but we didn’t,” he continued. “I wish the best of luck to the teams that are in it right now. I wish we were still in it, but that isn't the case.”
This difficulty too will be motivation soon enough.
“You know, even more than me, how the winning culture that has been TFC’s lately is so important, that excuses won’t make it up,” began Westberg. “We all know it was extremely challenging for all three Canadian teams, we had to go through things that the other teams don’t even imagine. They see from afar, but they don't realize it, and in two weeks people will have forgotten how hard it was for us.”
“We delivered most of the year. During the regular season we found ways to win in very tight games and make a difference with a mix of our mental toughness, our great preparation, our tactical awareness, and our quality, as a whole, as a group,” he reminded. “It was an exhausting season for us, that's for sure, but it doesn't take away the guilt to end it this way because even though it was hard, even though it was extremely challenging, we had higher expectations for ourselves.”
“This is the good part,” the goalkeeper added. “It's not easy to want to win. It's not easy to set high standards, but through thick and thin you need to stick to it.”
Mourn what was lost, but be glad to have been on the journey.
“With everything that happened this year, we had the chance to fight for the Canadian Championship, we had the chance to fight for the Supporters’ Shield, and we were on our way to try to do something in the playoffs,” summed up Gonzalez. “Ultimately we fell short, [but] from the first moment I stepped foot at the training ground with this club it was about a high standard, about always competing at the top of the table, always competing for a trophy. We were competing, but I know that this club always wants more.”
“That's the feeling I got when I first arrived, that's the feeling I still have,” he added. “I'm disappointed that we weren't able to reach our goals. These past couple days have been a little rough, knowing that we have a team that can do more, but now it's time to reflect and put in the work during this off-season and hopefully come back stronger.”