NEWARK, N.J. – A year ago, Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono was a spectator during the playoffs. Now he’s set to be in the very thick of the post-season action.
Bono made his MLS debut last June, subbing into a game against Orlando City after starter Clint Irwin went down injured. Bono ended up starting the next 14 games while Irwin recovered from a quadriceps strain, and the rookie shot stopper performed admirably, recording eight wins and just two losses during that run.
But as soon as Irwin was healthy again he took over as the club’s No. 1 goalkeeper, playing all six matches in the Reds’ magical playoff run that included that heartbreaking shootout loss to the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final at BMO Field. Bono watched from the bench.
Bono, though, beat out the more experienced Irwin for the starting job this pre-season, and he’s firmly established himself as one of the top young and rising goalkeepers in MLS during the 2017 campaign. Now Bono, a 23-year-old native of Syracuse, N.Y., is set to make his playoff debut when TFC take on the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday.
Is he nervous? Edgy? Worried? Jittery? Anxious?
Not a chance. If anything, the boyish Bono maintains he’d be more nervous if he wasn’t playing.
“I’m not too worried about it. I’ve played enough games to feel experienced in this league and to play in a playoff environment,” Bono told Sportsnet.
“To be honest, I get more nervous when I’m on the bench than I do playing games because I’m watching and I have no control over what’s going on. For me, Monday isn’t nerve-racking; it’s just a chance to take care of business.”
He later added: “My family is more nervous about the playoffs than I am. I’m excited. I’m ready to go. I just want to get out there on the field and get it started.”
If it sounds like Bono is pretty confident, that’s because he is. This isn’t the same kid who toiled with TFC 2, the club’s farm team, in the lower-tiered USL for all of 2015 after he was picked by the Reds in the first round of that year’s college draft.
He’s grown up a lot since getting a taste of first-team action last season, especially on the field where he’s shown great command of his penalty area, and hasn’t been shy about barking orders at the defenders playing in front of him.
“I’ve done a lot of growing up, and it’s comes with experience. The more you play and the more times you’re called on to do your job, it forces you to grow up and forces you to be in situations you’re uncomfortable with and adjust. In these playoffs, there’s guaranteed to be more uncomfortable situations, and for me this another step in my maturation process,” Bono said.
Overall, there’s a greater maturity to his play, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Toronto captain Michael Bradley. Not one to mince words or be afraid to call a spade a spade, Bradley has been impressed with Bono’s development, and how hard he has worked to get to this point in his career where he’s headed into the playoffs as TFC’s starting goalkeeper
“He’s grown, he’s improved. His personality and his presence continue to grow in a big way, which is so important for a goalkeeper,” Bradley stated.
“He’s an incredibly hard worker. From the time he came in here as a rookie from Syracuse, he was ready to get to work. … With Alex on the field right now, we have an incredible amount of confidence, and we’re going to continue to rely on him.”
Bono also credits Irwin for his development over the past 12 months.
“We talked a lot last season and throughout this year. He’s helped me a lot through this maturation process. I really appreciate what he’s done for me over the past year. I’ll sit down with him and bounce stuff of him and ask him his view. Nobody knows better him. He led us through that playoff run last year, so I’ll be sure to lean on him going forward,” Bono said.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing this year for Bono, though.
Bono looked a bit shaky in recent weeks, and he committed a calamitous clearance inside his six-yard box that deflected off an opposing player and into the back of net in a shocking 5-3 home loss to the Montreal Impact in late September.
But he rebounded in last week’s regular season finale, a 2-2 draw against Atlanta United on the road, making a number of key saves to allow the Reds earn a valuable point. Coach Greg Vanney was impressed with how Bono quickly put that behind him and looked stronger in subsequent games.
“He was excellent [in Atlanta], and he’s been great at shot stopping. What you need your goalkeeper to do over the course of the playoffs is to make a few big saves in key moments and be very tidy with the ball,” Vanney said.
“His ability to make saves, he’s proven that time and time again over the course of the year.”
NOTES: TFC will host New York at BMO Field on Nov. 5 for the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Should Toronto advance, it’ll meet either New York City FC or the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final. TFC would have home-field advantage for that series should they get past the Red Bulls.