Champions League ambitions a sign of culture change at TFC

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Being the best team in Major League Soccer isn’t enough for Toronto FC.

The Reds currently sit in first place in the overall league standings, a position it’s held for most of this year. But they know from first-hand experience that regular season success doesn’t guarantee an MLS Cup, and that’s the goal. It’s not the only goal, though.

TFC’s recent Canadian Championship victory not only allowed them to retain possession of the Voyageurs Cup, it also meant they qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, a yearly tournament that brings together the best teams from across North and Central America, and the Caribbean. It will mark Toronto’s return to the Champions league for the first time since 2012, a year after it lost to Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the semifinals.

Toronto will enter the Round of 16 of the continental completion next February, long after the dust has settled on 2017 and smack dab in the middle of the team’s pre-season preparations for the 2018 MLS campaign. MLS teams haven’t fared well in the Champions League. Mexican clubs have won every tournament since the inaugural event in 2008-09, with seven of the nine finals being all-Mexican affairs. Only two MLS outfits have reached the two-legged finale: Real Salt Lake in 2010-11 and the Montreal Impact in 2014-15.

MLS sides have only secured two wins in 48 games in Mexico in the Champions League. With four Mexican teams set to compete in next year’s competition, chances are very good that TFC will run into one of them at some point. So, history is working against Toronto FC, but club president Bill Manning believes the Reds, routinely lauded for their incredible depth this season, can mount a serious challenge in the Champions League.

“I think we are as equipped as any Major League Soccer team has ever been to compete and to potentially win the CONCACAF Champions League. That’s what this team is about. … We want to compete for championships in every completion: Canadian Championship, CONCACAF and MLS Cup,” Manning recently said.

That’s a pretty bold claim by Manning, even with TFC boasting players the calibre of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez. But then, being bold is Manning’s modus operandi.

When he was first hired near the tail-end of the 2015 MLS season, just weeks before Toronto’s embarrassing playoff loss to Montreal, Manning talked about the need to change the culture of a franchise known for its failures on and off the pitch since it entered Major League Soccer in 2007.

To that end, Manning ordered that a trophy case be built inside the team’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.

Every time a player goes into the lounge to shoot a game of pool or just relax on one of the couches, they face those cabinets. An accompanying mural was also painted on the main wall of the players’ gym where they work out every day, a daily reminder of what they are working towards.

The trophy cabinets and mural have become symbols of the culture change at TFC. They’re also statements of intent. From the outside, that might seem a tad presumptuous, especially for a team that was comically bad and mismanaged during its first eight years in the league. Championship teams build trophy cabinets and commission the painting of murals.

That’s the entire point, though. If you act like a winner, you’ll become a winner. That was Manning’s thinking, and the cabinets and mural are motivational tools, serving as constant reminders to the players about their responsibilities.

“I wanted them to walk in there seeing an empty cabinet … Every day they know what they’re playing for. I’m very goal-oriented in my own career. You need to know your goals. There’s not a player on this team who doesn’t know our goals when they walk into that players’ lounge,” Manning said.

“To me, with the investment that [team owners] MLSE has made into this team, those have to be our goals. If they don’t know what those goals are, you’re not in sync.”

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!

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.