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Gareth Wheeler

TSN Analyst and Radio Host

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Toronto FC is the top team in Major League Soccer for the 2017 regular season after a 4-2 home win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night.

Nothing ever comes easy for TFC. The team went from up 2-0 and in cruise control in the first half to a 2-2 tie with less than 15 minutes to go. A Victor Vazquez penalty and Justin Morrow’s third goal of the night ensured it was another special night at BMO Field. Not only is TFC the best MLS team for the 2017 regular season, they’re also the most watchable. This was the sixth consecutive home game the team scored three or more goals.  

Winning the Supporters’ Shield under the lights at home in front of a 10th straight sellout crowd was a fitting way to celebrate an incredible season. The 11th season of Toronto FC has properly represented the new standard of excellence at the club. This is no longer a team building or on the ascendancy – they are at the top of MLS.  

Yes, the MLS Cup is the inevitable goal. But winning the Supporters’ Shield was a stated goal too, and highly prioritized at the club. Finishing top of the league in most soccer leagues around the world crowns you champion. In MLS, it’s an important benchmark, and, more importantly, gives TFC home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.  

TFC now sits on 65 points – within striking distance of the all-time MLS points record of 68. A win and a draw in their last two matches (at home against Montreal and away at Atlanta) would be enough to give them the distinguished honour.

An accolade like the Supporters’ Shield doesn’t happen overnight. TFC supporters understand the highs and lows along the way. Years of planning, prepping, posturing, practicing and playing ­– and let’s not forget the pain either. The blueprint for TFC is one desired across MLS, but not one easily achieved. Critical decisions needed to be made along the way to make this team a winner.

The signings of the three Designated Players (Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley) are obvious difference makers for the team. All three represent the best MLS has to offer and provide the backbone of the team. But as we came to find out, three players alone aren’t enough to take a team to the top.

The realization much more was needed came 23 months ago after a 3-0 loss in Montreal to the Impact in the club’s first ever playoff game. It was a 90-minute nightmare of frustration and gut-wrenching disappointment. A whole lot of soul searching came from the loss, and critical analysis of how the team needed to move forward. 

It’s how TFC responded to those difficult times that has turned the club into a winner. Here are the top five moves and decisions made since that time that culminated in winning the Supporters’ Shield:

 

Keeping the coaching staff

It would have been easy for new president Bill Manning to bring in his own coach and staff to execute his vision when he was hired in 2015. Manning instead chose to trust the talented group already in Toronto, understanding the need for continuity and believing in manager in Greg Vanney. The weight was heavy on Vanney from the outset. The managerial position at the club had been a revolving door, with eight different head men at the club in eight seasons.

A constant flow of players in and out certainly didn’t help matters either. It takes time for a coaching staff to figure out how best to press buttons and get the most out of a group. Having trust in the group through difficult schedules with renovations to BMO Field showed big-picture thinking at TFC. What’s come from that trust is arguably the best, most tight-knit coaching staff in MLS. They’ve shown tactical superiority, spot-on in-game management, and built proper relationships with their players.

 

Bolstering the Defence

TFC was a dangerous offensive team in 2015, scoring 58 goals. But it was the 58 goals conceded that wasn’t sustainable for success. Band-Aid options at the back, lacking shine or experience, did little to fix the team’s glaring weakness. The backline had to be fixed, and Manning set a lofty goal to concede less than 45 in 2016. General manager Tim Bezbatchenko was diligent, bringing in the reinforcements required to take the team to the next level. Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour were brought on board, bringing quality and leadership. A trade for Clint Irwin solidified the goaltending. The additions of all three allowed the emerging talents of Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund to flourish. The result was the best defensive record in the Eastern Conference in 2016, with just 39 goals conceded.

The finishing touches came this season, with Chris Mavinga standing as a crown jewel. The well-travelled Frenchman has put himself in the running for MLS Defender of the Year. On top of that, Jason Hernandez has come in to provide more cover. Goalkeeper Alex Bono has set a record for most clean sheets in a season in club history behind this elite defensive unit. He’s the first to admit clean sheets are a team statistic and not his alone. The complete transformation of the back end in such a short period of time has been a massive catalyst for overall team improvement.

 

Finding a formation

Late in the 2016 season, Vanney and his staff settled on a preferred 3-5-2 formation. TFC’s style of play is adaptable to other formations, but this preferred look has taken full advantage of the personnel available. It’s allowed Justin Morrow to emerge as a top left wing-back, able to get forward, playing a high line with the strikers at times. Eight goals on the season, including a hat trick to help with the Shield (first MLS hat-trick by a defender since 1997) speaks to his influence. It’s allowed Bradley to sit back and dictate the game from deep-lying positions. No one does a better job picking his spots, reading the game and having influence from the middle of the park. It’s allowed TFC to play two up top at a time when most teams play one in attack. Giovinco and Altidore up top are the most dangerous strike partnership in the MLS, with the formation allowing them to develop a special chemistry. The system also provides natural width, and opens up space for the talent to shine. Best yet, it’s taken TFC from being a very good team to an excellent one.

 

Delivering on depth

It’s the story of the season. Even with top players out of the lineup, TFC keeps coming up with results. No team has better depth than Toronto. The front office and scouting staff have done wonderfully, plugging holes in the team and bringing players in who can complement the group. Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore have missed a combined 24 games this season, yet they’ve kept on winning. There have been multiple top additions to the team, fitting with near perfection. In 2016, it came through the mid-season addition of Tosaint Ricketts, with his combination of pace and finish.

Armando Cooper was another, solidifying the midfield on their way to an MLS Cup Final. This season, Nicolas Hasler was the in-season addition, bringing a spark down the right, scoring goals and impressing in a short period of time. These are pickups by design, not panic, brought in to address needs. They fit with the likes of Marky Delgado, Benoit Cheyrou, Jonathan Osorio and others who are established team members. And they are pushed by the young players coming through the club, like Raheem Edwards, who burst on the scene this season. TFC relies on both recruitment and development and they’ve got the balance right. 

 

Vazquez was worth the wait

Victor Vazquez has been as advertised and more for TFC. The club had been after the player for years, and he’s proven to have been well worth the wait. Eight goals and 16 assists, combined with the on-the ball class and exceptional footballing intelligence has helped bring the team to another level. Vazquez is used through the middle, but has played more to the left and even off a lone striker at times. He brings versatility, an underrated work rate. Although he’s not a DP, he’s played at that level, and should be the MLS Newcomer of the Year. Bringing Vazquez to the club was an absolute coup, and has given TFC that cutting edge with goals and assists from the midfield they desired.