TORONTO – As music blared and Toronto FC players wildly celebrated in the locker room following their MLS Cup victory over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, club president Bill Manning was the very picture of 1950s crooner cool.
Manning was subconsciously doing his best Frank Sinatra impression, with the top button on his shirt undone, and his dress pants still perfectly creased, as he languidly swigged from a bottle of champagne. Had someone handed him a microphone then and there, he likely would’ve started singing, “Fly Me to The Moon.”
And why not? Manning would’ve had every right to burst out in song after a victory that capped off an incredible season for the Reds.
Still, amidst all the revelry, Manning couldn’t help but think of next year, and that all-important question: Where does Toronto FC go from here? What does TFC do after a dream 2017 campaign that saw them win the Supporters’ Shield trophy, set the record for most points in a single season, repeat as Canadian club champions, and hoist the MLS Cup?
The answer is they get to try to do it all again in 2018, and although history is not on their side – only three clubs have ever repeated as MLS Cup champions – Manning is confident the Reds can do it. You can certainly understand why he’s so confident.
Toronto is one of the deepest teams in Major League Soccer, with all three of its designated players (captain Michael Bradley, and forwards Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco), as well as playmaker Victor Vazquez and wingback Justin Morrow, under contract for many more years. Veteran defender Drew Moor, currently out of contract, is expected to sign a new deal and return next season.
The Reds also have a crop of exciting players in their early to mid-20s in goalkeeper Alex Bono, defenders Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and Chris Mavinga, and midfielders Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio who have the potential to serve as the backbone of this club for years to come.
The core of this roster is in place and the team is set up for long-term success, and that bodes well for the Reds’ chances of repeating as MLS Cup champions next year.
“Three championships [this season]. I’m so proud. I’m so proud of this team. 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,” Manning told Sportsnet shortly after TFC’s MLS Cup victory.
“This isn’t a one off. You look at Alex Bono, who is 23 years old. You look at Marky Delgado, who is 23 years old. Osorio is a young player. The players who are in the prime of their careers – Michael and Jozy and Seba – they’ve got a lot of years to give.”
Coach Greg Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko, two of the chief architects of this MLS Cup-winning side, are also in for the long haul after each signed contract extensions over the summer.
After a rocky start to his tenure in charge of Toronto, Vanney has come into his own the past two seasons, and was named MLS coach of the year for 2017. He’s helped to radically change the culture at the club since taking the coaching reins in 2014, and has done a superb job of creating competition for playing time, and making everybody on the roster (even those who ride the bench) buy into his system and feel as though they are a key contributor.
Vanney’s tactical imprint is all over TFC, getting his team to play in different formations and win games in a variety of fashions. A 3-5-2 is his formation of choice, but TFC is just as comfortable in a 4-4-2 or using a diamond-shaped midfield (like he used against Seattle in the final), and can easily switch formations within a game. No team in the league is as tactically flexible as TFC, and that’s credit to Vanney.
At first, Manning wasn’t so sure about his coach’s tactical vision. But Vanney sold Manning on it when he sat down with him and Bezbatchenko midway through last season.
“I was very much about consistency. Consistent lineup, a core group of players – I didn’t want to deviate too much from that. Greg said, ‘Bill, I get ya. We’re going to do that. That’s how we’re going to build this team. But I want to be a club that can also play multiple formations and be comfortable in them.’ He wanted to build a side that could throw different looks at opposing teams and still be comfortable. That was the conversation we had and I think you saw that against Seattle,” Manning said.
“Greg needed time, and what happened was this team matured. Now, whether we play a 3-5-2 or a 4-5-1, or whatever formation we play, it doesn’t matter. That’s Greg’s brilliance. He’s got us to a point now with these guys that it doesn’t matter how we line up.”
Manning had a hand in changing the fortunes of this franchise, too.
When he was appointed club president in 2015, Manning, who previously held the same role with Real Salt Lake where he won an MLS Cup in 2009, knew that this was a franchise still in the middle of a rebuild. And while the atmosphere within the organization wasn’t as toxic and dysfunctional as it once was – failing to qualify for the playoffs for eight consecutive years had that effect – he also knew a culture change still needed to take place.
To that end, Manning ordered that a trophy case be built at the club’s training facility. The individual glass cabinets are carved into the main wall of the players’ lounge with the titles “Canadian Championship,” “MLS Cup” and “CONCACAF Champions League” printed just above them. Also, a mural with the trophies TFC has won and still yet to claim was painted on the main wall of the training facility’s gym where the players work out.
If TFC was going to be a team that was going to win championships, then it had to start feeling like it was capable of doing it. Forget about the past failures and the “Bloody Big Deal.” This was a new era, one where was winning wasn’t an option, it was an expectation. You want to be a winner? Start thinking like a winner. Start believing you’re a winner.
In essence, Manning was saying that the trophy cabinets have been built — now it’s time to fill them.
“And now we get to fill it. You know what, it feels great. Look, I can be the smartest guy in the room, or I can be the dumbest guy in the room, and if that trophy case is empty all the time, I’m the dumbest guy in the room, right?” Manning said.
“What it did … 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. Every single day. 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.”
Toronto has its sights set on loftier goals beyond repeating as MLS Cup champions. Starting in February, it’ll compete in the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament that brings together the best outfits from across North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Mexican teams have dominated the Champions League, winning every tournament since its inception in 2008. Only two MLS teams have managed to get to the finals of the continental competition.
But with Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore in tow, and with TFC boasting such a deep roster, Manning is confident they can make a serious run.
“The next step is CONCACAF Champions League. That’s the next step, and we’ve already been talking about it,” Manning said.
It was at this point in the interview with Sportsnet that Bradley walked by, with TFC’s captain receiving a high-five from Manning and a gentle reminder of what lies ahead.
“We got it done tonight, right Michael? CONCACAF next, right? Right? Right? CONCACAF next, right pal?” Manning quipped.