Toronto FC put together something historic in 2017. Now, they’re tasked with a follow up.
After coming short in the 2016 MLS Cup final, TFC achieved the Canadian treble and then some. A Voyageur’s Cup and a record-breaking regular season culminating in a Supporters’ Shield were backed by the team’s ultimate goal, their first MLS Cup.
“We knew we had a motivated group,” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney told SBI Soccer. “It was important that the approach was to get better every day and more about the process and along the way if you take care about the process, you give yourself a better chance to win.”
After such a great year, the potential for a hangover could be high but the team is sticking to its basics.
“I think our objective is the same as it was last year: To take it one game at a time, one competition at a time, one week at a time,” Eriq Zavaleta told SBI Soccer. “I think that was such a key tactic from last year, just having to narrow in and to make about the game and the task at hand on the weekend.”
Vanney is confident in his team just like he was last season. Even though they have targets behind their backs more than ever this season, he thinks the mentality used in 2017 could equate to similar results.
“When push came to shove they showed up to play every match and they did what to you over the course of a lot of games to find ways to win,” said Vanney. “You need to do that in order to win three trophies in three different types of competitions.”
Hangover or not, TFC are set to start the season with one of their objectives already hanging over their heads: A CONCACAF Champions League trophy.
“We would like to be the first team in MLS to accomplish it,” Zavaleta told SBI. “For us it’s a big one and we’ve been preparing as soon as we could be because it obviously comes very quickly.”
Having the season start early because of the Champions League knockout games could be an advantage for TFC. Despite having the shortest offseason of any team in MLS, Vanney and his team are eager to become the first MLS team to win the current iteration of the continental tournament.
“It helps from the standpoint of the hangover that people may talk about,” Vanney said. “There’s an immediate motivation to win games right off the bat and to win another trophy.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s prioritized by any means over others because MLS Cup is very much another goal of ours,” said Zavaletta. “But at the same time we’d like to be the first ones to accomplish it, we would like to continue to submit this notion that we are the best in the history of MLS and also to build the moment on hopefully another successful season.”
Here is a closer look at Toronto FC:
Toronto FC Season Preview
2017 FINISH: 20-9-5 (1st in the East)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Gregory van der Wiel, Auro, Ayo Akinola
KEY LOSSES: Steven Beitashour, Benoit Cheyrou, Raheem Edwards
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Gregory van der Wiel
The former PSG right back may have left the public eye since his days in Ligue 1, with stints at Fenerbahce and Cagliari. Having signed in early February, van der Wiel will be looking to revive his career with the defending champions who were looking to replace departing right back Steven Beitashour. The Dutchman could benefit from Toronto’s style of play, which features a lot of plays built from the flanks. However, fitness may be an issue for him as he has only played in 23 games, all competitions considered, since 2016.
PRESSURE IS ON: Eriq Zavaleta
The center back has played his first 2000-plus minute season last year and looks to build on it. This year will be a crucial one for the 25-year-old who will look to one day receive the torch from aging veteran Drew Moor. With a potential Champions League run, TFC will have a lot of games to play from the get-go. Zavaleta, who was left out of the MLS Cup final, has an opportunity early in the season to impose himself in the lineup and convince Vanney to give him another season with over 2000 minutes.
Toronto FC is banking on the fact that this season will be filled with individual goals that will motivate the team throughout the year.
According to Vanney, the 2018 season will frame their one game at a time mentality very nicely. The start of the season features the Champions League knockout round, the Canadian Championship sits at mid-season and they will want to end their campaign with another playoff run.
“All through the season we have little tournaments where we have the opportunity to try and win championships,” said Vanney. “Meanwhile we have to manage a 34-game season during that as well so there’s a lot to look forward to and a lot of guys will get the opportunity to put their stamp on the season.”
Another point of confidence for TFC is the work done by Vanney and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko to keep the team’s core together. Of last year’s starters, only Steven Beitashour left the club.
“If you look at the history of MLS and you look at the very successful teams you see a lot of the same turnovers, a lot of the same core,” said Zavaleta. “I think that’s what a lot of people in this club thought was missing prior to that.”
Zavaleta continued by saying how important having the same core of players is for himself and the rest of his team.
“I think for ust’s a big thing and credit to Tim and Greg and the rest of the organization for recognizing that,” he said. “And not only recognizing it but putting pen to paper and making sure that they kept the guys that they needed to around.”
With Beitashour now at LAFC, TFC’s only major turnover is at the right back position. The front office added Gregory van der Wiel in early February, and later Auro on loan from Sao Paulo, to bring more depth to the right flank. van der Wiel adds to an increasing list of players with track record in Europe.
“He’s a world-class right back, there’s no two ways about it,” said Vanney. “His ability to play on the side, in attack, to play off the line, to do things that are not necessarily common in MLS.”
Despite only signing in February, Zavaleta believes that the Dutchman will be an important addition to the team.
“He’s impressed everybody over here with the type of guy he is, the type of professionalism and obviously his talent on the field,” said Zavaleta. “We think that this will only make us better this year.”
Vanney appreciated the fact that TFC has the opportunity to spend in positions that MLS teams have not been known to spend on in the past.
“A lot of times in MLS, with the salary cap and position where you don’t necessarily spend a lot of money, outside back have traditionally been those positions,” he said. “For us now to have a world-class player coming off the right side, we rely a lot on our wing backs and fullbacks, to have a guy like that on the field makes our team better.”