Toronto FC still has one box left to tick to cap impressive season

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Montreal Impact. (Graham Hughes/CP)

TORONTO – For Toronto FC, two of the three boxes have already been ticked off.

The Reds won a second consecutive Canadian Championship in the summer, and then clinched their first-ever Supporters’ Shield trophy, the award that goes to the team that finishes the MLS regular season in first place, with a 4-2 home win over the New York Red Bulls last weekend.

There’s one more box to check, and it’s the most important one: The MLS Cup.

“We’re very proud to win [the Supporters’ Shield]. We’re very proud to win it for our fans who have gone through a lot over the years. But we also know we have one big one left in front of us,” coach Greg Vanney said after the win.

Winning the Supporters’ Shield not only comes with a first-round bye in the playoffs, it also means TFC will have home-field advantage all the way through the post-season, including for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9 should they make it. So, it’s all set up for Toronto FC to win MLS Cup.

They should win MLS Cup. They expect to win MLS Cup. Those who follow the team, both fans and media, rightly expect them to win MLS Cup.

Not winning MLS Cup won’t mean this season has been a failure – you can’t write off any campaign that includes a Canadian Championship, a Supporters’ Shield and, quite possibly, the record for the most points in a single season – as a failure. Not winning MLS Cup would be a major disappointment, though.

Still, league history suggests that it’s not a cake walk for Supporters’ Shield winners to lift the league’s most coveted prize. Only six teams have pulled off the double of winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season since the formation of the league in 1996. Incredibly, it’s only been done twice since the Designated Player rule came into effect in 2007: The Columbus Crew (2008) and LA Galaxy (2011).

Why does the best team in the regular season rarely go on to win MLS Cup? One theory is that the league is far more competitive now during the DP era than at any other time in league history. More teams are capable of winning the Cup than ever before, including expansion franchises. Look at what Atlanta United FC has done this year. They spent big on DPs and a marquee coach, rounded out their roster with veteran MLS players, and made sound moves off the field to become an instant contender.

TFC has been far and away the best side in MLS during this regular season. But that doesn’t mean they’ll hoist the MLS Cup trophy when it’s all said and done. There are just too many variables at play and the room of error is slim. There are no guarantees.

“A big portion of what MLS is [about], over time, is it’s about consistency. I just think that a cup is about form. It’s not necessarily [about] luck, but one thing that goes the wrong way can be the end of your post-season,” Vanney offered.

“That doesn’t happen in a regular season. In a regular season, there’s a long haul, and there’s a lot of things you can adjust and adapt to. But in a two-leg affair, or a one-game knockout [in the playoffs], it really could come down to one bad decision that turns into a red card and then the next thing you know you’re down 3-0 and that’s it. Your season is over. It becomes a lot more of a crapshoot in the end.”

Vanney argues that in terms of winning and losing in the playoffs what it can often come down to is one individual player and the choices he makes on the pitch.

“Obviously, you want to be in the best possible form, but you need players to make good decisions, you need to execute in key moments. The margins become a lot smaller when you are in a cup competition or a playoff competition versus the long haul of a season,” Vanney said.

“Six teams have been able to [win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season] in this league. It’s doable, but it shows you how the margins are small. You can be the best team, and have one thing go wrong and all of a sudden it’s a different outcome than you expected.”

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Vanney knows all too well what it’s like for a team to win the Supporters’ Shield only to fall short in the playoffs.

TFC’s coach was a star defender with the Galaxy in 1998 when they romped to first place with 68 points, a league record for the most points in a season that still stands today. But the Galaxy ran into the Chicago Fire in the Western Conference finals, losing to the club from the Windy City, who finished 12 points behind LA in the regular season standings. Chicago went to win MLS Cup in its first year in the league.

Atlanta United FC could pull “a Chicago” this year, as the club from Georgia currently sits third in the Eastern Conference, and is trending at the right moment ahead of the playoffs.

Vanney doesn’t fear Atlanta, though. He maintains he’s not worried about playing certain teams in the East because it’ll be a more favourable matchup for TFC.

“It’s really about us performing, playing in the moment and [players] making a smart decision for the team in the context of the game in that moment. If we can do that and we can do that through each of these games, then I like our chances against anyone. It doesn’t matter who it is,” Vanney said.

TFC Pitchside will provide Toronto FC supporters with an inside look into their favourite obsession Monday nights at 11 pm ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. Call it an all-access pass for all things MLS brought to you by co-hosts Dan Riccio, Thomas Michalakos and producer Amil Delic. You'll hear from the biggest names around the club, and the MLS. You'll also get reviews and previews of every TFC game with reports from Pitchside at training and on game days at BMO Field. The Six is about to get done!