After leaving Real Salt Lake two years ago to become Toronto FC’s new president, Bill Manning tried to help further the necessary culture change by taking aim at the club’s structure—literally. He had three large holes carved into the wall inside TFC’s North York training center. They’re prominent—viewable from both sides—and each is encased in glass and labeled with the name of one of three major competitions: the Canadian Championship, MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League.
At the time Manning was hired, nine-year-old TFC had won in its modest five-team domestic cup tournament but was a meager 0-1-0 in MLS Cup playoff games. And it certainly wasn’t a continental threat.
“I felt this franchise needed to know that the expectations were here and we believe in them, but every single day they needed to know what the expectations are,” Manning told Canada’s SportsNet. “We don’t talk about it. It’s just an expectation. They recognize it. I don’t make a lot of fanfare about things. I just do it and hope it resonates.”
The trophy cases were mocked. TFC had been a mess of an organization that couldn’t get out of its own way. But two years later, the high-flying Reds have finally clicked and are close to matching Manning’s ambition. As players cleaned out their lockers Tuesday and conducted the final collective media availability of an historic 2017 season, the MLS Cup trophy they won Saturday night was on display in the middle case. The Canadian title had been secured in June, the first part of an unprecedented treble that also includes the Supporters’ Shield. And on the other side, there’s the remaining hole—not only in TFC’s wall but in MLS’s pursuit of additional respect and legitimacy. That’s the spot for the CCL trophy no MLS team has been able to win.
“In the history of this league—in our 22 years of existence—this is what we’re arguing about on a day-to-day basis,” TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko told SI.com Saturday night inside the club’s champagne-drenched locker room. “There are some teams that have come close, [but] I think that if they would’ve won it, it would’ve been an upset. I think we’re going into the Champions League as a favorite. We can do it. We can do it. I think with this group of people, why not?”
CONCACAF competition has been a bloodbath for MLS sides since D.C. United (1998) and the LA Galaxy (2000) won abbreviated, three-game tournaments on home soil. Just two have “come close” since the confederation forced teams to travel starting in 2002, and Bezbatchenko is right—it would’ve been a shock if either won. Small-market Real Salt Lake fell in the 2011 finals to Monterrey, and the Montreal Impact lost at the same stage to Club América in 2015 after finishing last in MLS the season before. Neither outscored a Mexican club en route (Montreal got past Pachuca on away goals).
Otherwise, it’s been one embarrassing early exit after another. The record against teams from Liga MX, the region’s pre-eminent power, is particularly awful. In 31 all-time home-and-home series against Mexican opposition in CONCACAF championship play, MLS outfits have advanced a paltry three times.
There’s been a lot of talk since Toronto throttled the Seattle Sounders in Saturday’s final about the Reds’ place as the best MLS team of all time. The men who won the first U.S./Canadian treble are biased, obviously, but veteran defender Drew Moor offered some smart perspective from the postgame locker room.
“For this season, we were the best team in history. For a 12-month time span, to win the treble—to do it the way we did,” he said. “There’s been some very good teams in this league. If we’re not talking about multiple years—this season—we were the best team in league history.”
Was TFC’s season the best in MLS? There’s little doubt. But is it the best team? As Moor hinted, there’s a distinction between one season and several. Historic excellence is sustained excellence. To surpass the late-1990s D.C. juggernaut and the early 2010s Galaxy of Donovan, Beckham and Keane—to stand alone—TFC will have to achieve something unprecedented. It’ll have to raise the bar. And the CCL represents the obvious target. TFC must conquer the unconquerable, and they know it.
Players like Sebastian Giovinco and Víctor Vázquez, who assisted and scored in Saturday’s final, respectively, mentioned the Champions League immediately after winning MLS Cup. Manning and Bezbatchenko addressed it in the winners’ locker room.
Captain Michael Bradley was even thinking about it when he signed with the club back in 2014, before TFC had made a single playoff appearance. He told SI, “They’re trying to make Toronto FC the best club in North America. We’re trying to make Toronto FC a team that is competing to win MLS Cups and Champions Leagues, year in and year out … Another reason why I’m here, the chance to be a part of the first MLS team that wins the Champions League is a huge goal. The chance to then go on to the world club championship is something that’ll really go a long way in establishing this league.”
Considering how far TFC has come since Bradley spoke those words, it would be silly to write them off completely. But history is history and facts are facts—the hill Toronto must climb is steep, and there are factors working against it. Despite the competition’s structural overhaul, which eliminated the group stage and now sends the U.S. and Canadian qualifiers straight to a round-of-16 knockout, the scheduling remains problematic. Liga MX and Costa Rican clubs, for example, will have been in season for around six weeks when the CCL’s first round kicks off February 20-22. And TFC will have been idle for more than two months (the American representatives are Seattle, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids).
The CCL finalists will play eight mid-week games in just over two months, in addition to their domestic schedules. It’ll be a taxing test of depth, management and resilience.
“I think great athletes across all sports achieve what they achieve because they’re self motivated,” Bezbatchenko said. “If someone challenges us, I think that’s fun and it adds to the pile of things. But the at the core of that pile is your self motivation.
“You have so many things that are stacked up against you [in CCL], between the altitude, travel, the time of year—and I think this group has the mentality of just getting on with it. This is what we do. It’s all business,” Bezbatchenko continued. “The pieces we have, they’re good enough talent-wise. We think we can go toe-to-toe. We’ll see.”
Indeed, TFC is talented and still could improve this winter. An issue with MLS clubs in CCL play, especially against Mexican foes, hasn’t been the top end of the roster as much as it’s been about the middle. MLS rules have made it difficult for teams to spread money throughout the squad, leading to top-heavy sides that struggle to juggle domestic and international duty and often wilt against balanced foes with talent (and salaries) spread more evenly across the field. The introduction of Targeted Allocation Money was designed to address that, in part—it’s how TFC signed Vázquez—and next season’s boost could make even more of a difference. Last week, MLS announced that clubs can spend an additional $2.8 million of TAM at their discretion in both 2018 and 2019, on top of the $1.2 million previously allotted. That’s a significant injection of funds that should make a difference, and Manning told reporters Tuesday that TFC intends to use it.
“It’s massive. The TAM—they’re [essentially] designated players,” Bezbatchenko said. “They allow you to go out and compete at all roster levels. We’ve been waiting for it, to have this moment. As all GMs are looking to build rosters, it gives you so much more flexibility, and you can start to compete.”
Manning told SportsNet following the final, “The best thing about this is that this isn’t a team that’s going to be done. We’re going to be really good again next year. The next step is [winning] the CONCACAF Champions League, and we’ve already been talking about it. We’re set up for long-term success.”
Speaking to SI.com at around the same time, Bezbatchenko said TFC’s depth would be key as it negotiates the first half of 2018 and that this season’s obsessive focus on the treble would have to evolve a bit thanks to CCL.
“It’ll be a blend. We’ve got to get our younger guys in. Our USL guys can play in the CCL [for example]. You’re blending all these types,” he said. “Will we go for Supporters’ Shield? Sure. That’s what we want. But next year, it’s about the Champions League at the beginning.”
The CCL draw is Monday in Miami. There, TFC—which is seeded in Pot 1 along with Seattle, New York, Dallas and the four Mexican entrants—will learn its round-of-16 opponent. Preseason training under coach Greg Vanney will start just a little more than a month later, and it reportedly will include friendlies in Mexico. TFC is ready. The best season in MLS history is over. The journey toward becoming its best team starts soon.