ATLANTA – “Sign the painting.”
A lot was written and said during the buildup of Toronto FC attempting to break the record for most points in an MLS season, which the Reds finally did with a 2-2 draw against Atlanta United FC on Sunday evening.
Beat reporters covering the team looked to put the Reds’ chase of the mark in some sort of context, while broadcasters waxed lyrically on a sensational campaign as the TV cameras were rolling. Toronto players gave standard answers when queried by the media, and coach Greg Vanney, who played on the 1998 LA Galaxy team that set the record Toronto was trying to eclipse, seemed rather uninterested by all of it.
There was an incredible amount of noise coming from a whole lot of directions, and not much of it was worth listening to. But Toronto assistant coach Dan Calichman, who like Vanney played on that ’98 LA side, put it best when asked for his thoughts on TFC’s attempt set a new benchmark for excellence in an MLS regular season.
“There’s that saying, ‘Sign the painting.’ Create that beautiful piece of artwork, but then sign it – meaning, finish off the whole thing. The playoffs are difficult; it’s not an easy format. Finish off the job,” Calichman told Sportsnet.
Translation: Win the MLS Cup.
It’s all well and good for Toronto FC to have broken the points record. To have won a second consecutive Canadian Championship. To have qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League. To have won the Supporters’ Shield trophy, awarded to the team that finishes the regular season in first place. To have clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs. To have secured home-field advantage all the way through the post-season, including for the MLS Cup final.
It’s been a remarkable 2017 for Toronto FC, and this will go down as one of the greatest campaigns by any club even if it doesn’t end with an MLS championship.
But there’s no doubt that TFC will feel empty, the season unfulfilled, if the players don’t end up hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Dec. 9 at BMO Field.
That sounds unforgiving and stark, but it’s reality, and it’s not lost on the coaching staff or the players. Top to bottom in this organization, from the bench players to the stars, there is an overwhelming consensus: It’s MLS Cup or bust. They expect to win it, and anything short of winning the league championship will be unacceptable.
Deep in the bowels of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, not more than 20 minutes after the final whistle was blown, TFC players and coaches quietly mingled inside their locker room. There was no loud music blaring. No high fives. No celebratory beers. There were barely any smiles.
You’d never have known that the team just made history by breaking the points record, a mark that stood for close to two decades.
Forward Jozy Altidore, one of Toronto’s goal-scorers on the night, took the briefest of moments to pat the team on the back for the accomplishment. But in the very next breath he had already moved on, reminding everybody that the ultimate goal is to win MLS Cup.
“It’s something. At the end [of the day], there’s only one thing we want, one thing on our minds, and that’s trying to get to the final again,” Altidore deadpanned.
Points record? Pffff. Whatever. It’s just another box that has been checked off.
Captain Michael Bradley took a similar tone when asked about the record, pointing out that TFC’s regular season success, in essence, doesn’t mean anything now that the playoffs are about to kick off.
“Over 34 games [in the regular season], we were the best team, and we proved that time and time again, and we’re very proud of that. Now, it all starts over – everything. Everybody starts again at zero [in the playoffs], nobody is going to give us anything because we had a good regular season,” Bradley explained.
He later added: “Everything that we’ve done up until now is going to go out the window. It’s just gone out the window. … We’ve talked about going for it for 34 games, giving everything to win the Supporters’ Shield, and then the second the season was over, regroup and making sure we were ready to find a new level for the playoffs. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Toronto must now play the waiting game, and see how the first round pans out on Wednesday and Thursday before learning who it’ll play in its Eastern Conference semifinal series next week. Will it be the New York Red Bulls? Columbus Crew? Atlanta United?
Toronto has a winning record this year against both New York and Columbus, and it was unbeaten in its two meetings versus Atlanta.
But coach Vanney wouldn’t be drawn when asked which side he thinks TFC best matches up against, or if he had a preferred opponent.
“It’s not about anybody else. It’s about us,” Vanney confidently stated.
Altidore gave a similar answer when asked if he expected to return to Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs.
“It doesn’t matter to me, man. It doesn’t matter where we’re going, our objective doesn’t change,” Altidore said.
If there were any doubts as to whether Toronto FC lost sight of what’s really important, winning the MLS Cup, they were erased Sunday night in Atlanta after setting the points record.
The beautiful piece of artwork has been created. Now, TFC must sign the painting.