TORONTO – Not only is Mark Pais not going to play in Saturday’s MLS Cup final at BMO Field, he won’t even dress for the game.
Such has been life this year for Pais, Toronto FC’s third-string goalkeeper. Given a tryout in pre-season and signed to an MLS contract in April, Pais, a 26-year-old native of St. Louis, has spent the majority of the campaign with the TFC 2 farm club that competes in the United Soccer League.
Although briefly serving as Toronto FC’s backup for a few MLS games early on in the year, Pais has been the No. 3 man on the goalkeeping depth chart. Playing behind Alex Bono and Clint Irwin, two goalkeepers who could probably start on any other club in the league, has meant that Pais has had to bide his time in the second-tier USL – he hasn’t played a single minute of MLS action for the Reds in 2017.
You could hardly blame Pais (it’s pronounced “pace”) if he felt as though he was an outsider, or not a part of the team. But he’s found comfort in Toronto FC’s official slogan, “All For One,” that has helped him stay intimately connected to the side during the season and through the playoffs as it’s made its way to Saturday’s championship game against the Seattle Sounders.
“I’ve said this a lot – this organization from the very top to the bottom, everybody here is welcoming and connected. I’ve not seen anything like it. The club logo, ‘All For One,’ I mean, this club lives and breathes it on a daily basis. That was one of the first things I noticed when I came here,” Pais told Sportsnet in a one-on-one chat.
Between games for TFC 2, Pais routinely practises with the MLS club, forming a bond with goalkeeper coach Jon Conway, as well as Bono and Irwin. The friendly banter between Pais and his goalkeeping cohorts and his other Toronto FC teammates on the training pitch and in the halls of the club’s multi-million-dollar practice facility go a long way in reminding him that he’s a valued member of the team, even though he never plays.
“There are times when you’re bouncing around with the USL, and you’re not in the locker room or not at training with the guys, that there’s a little disconnect for me. But even so, when we’re all together, they’re not looking at me as a guy who hasn’t played in MLS, and go ‘Oh, I’m not going to give him the time of day.’ Everybody treats everybody equally, so I’ve always been made to feel as though I’m a valuable member of TFC,” Pais said.
Before coming to Toronto, Pais spent two seasons with Saint Louis FC in the USL. Prior to that, he played NCAA soccer with University of Tulsa and Saint Louis University. He was on trial for the Charleston Battery of the USL for two days when he received a call from Toronto FC to join them in Orlando for pre-season camp in February.
Pais originally signed with TFC 2 prior to the start of the 2017 MLS season. But Irwin suffered a hamstring injury in the Reds’ home opener in early April, and was ruled out for four to six weeks. The MLS club then quickly turned around and signed Pais to a senior-team contract to back up Bono. When Irwin returned, Pais was the odd-man out, and was once again the third-string option. He’s taken the demotion in stride, and used it as an opportunity to improve his game.
“I try to stay in the moment as much as I can as far as taking care of what I have to do that day, that week. It helps to compartmentalize like that,” Pais said.
“I see [Bono and Irwin] ahead of me, but it helps me in that we’re always training together, and that allows me to see what are these guys doing well that I need to approve on. What can I change? What do I have to do to get to their level? It allows me to be a little bit more analytical about where I’m at what I need to work on.”
Make no mistake about it: Pais wants to play in MLS. That’s his goal, so constantly watching the games from the stands or from a private box at BMO Field, and not being a part of the action is a little disheartening. It hasn’t affected his attitude, though, with Conway lauding his work rate and commitment on the training ground.
“It’s easy to come to work every day here when you have all these resources and a staff that makes you push yourself to get to where you want to go. Whatever they’ve asked of me, I’ve done it. Nothing has changed. I’m happy to come to work each day and put in the work, and fulfill the role that I’m asked to do,” Pais said.
And what does he see his role ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final?
“To keep Alex and Clint sharp. If we’re all on point, and doing our thing and we’re all at a high level, it makes the other guys push themselves even more. I want the attacking players to see me in there [in training] by coming up with saves and making them work harder. Maybe it’s some small thing, some small adjustment they have to make, but if I’m forcing them to do that, then I feel like I’m doing my job,” Pais said.