Toronto FC: From ‘worst team in the world’ to model MLS franchise

Sebastian-Giovinco

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – From the worst team in the world to being on the cusp of recording the greatest regular season in Major League Soccer history, Toronto FC has come a very long way in five short years.

TFC have enjoyed a scorching hot summer, going on a nine-game unbeaten run dating back to their last loss on Canada Day. In doing so, Toronto has firmly established itself as the MLS Cup favourite, and pulled ahead of the chasing pack in the race for the Supporters’ Shield trophy by some distance.

Sunday’s 3-1 road win over the Montreal Impact improved the Reds’ point tally to 56 on the campaign (a new club record), moving them a bit closer to eclipsing the mark for most points in a season, 68, held by the 1998 L.A. Galaxy.

After an uneven start to the year, Toronto quickly righted itself, turning it on and shifting out of first gear this July and August. It hasn’t always been like that. In the past, their seasons have largely fallen apart during the summer months, the Reds’ playoff hopes dashed when the weather turned warm. And in one famous case, it was all over before the flowers even had a chance to bloom following a long, cold winter.

Five years ago, Toronto’s campaign was over by mid-May thanks to an 0-9 record, an amazing mark for futility at the start of an MLS regular season that will likely never be broken. TFC was, quite frankly, the laughingstock of the league.

The sad state of affairs surrounding TFC wasn’t limited to matters on the pitch, either. Coach Aron Winter had lost the room, and was duly shown the door following an acrimonious working relationship with technical director Paul Mariner, his eventual successor.

Striker Danny Koevermans fanned the flames when he publicly suggested in a post-game rant that Toronto FC was the worst team in the world. The Dutchman’s outburst made major news – even the BBC ran a story on it – and he doubled down on it a few days later when given the opportunity to walk back his original bold proclamation.

Toronto only won five matches and earned a meagre 23 points that year. This was the low point in the history of this franchise. There had been previous miss-steps and close calls, but the 2012 season was absolute rock bottom. The team was in complete disarray, MLSE didn’t have a clue, and the loyal fan base was pissed off. Many reporters who intimately covered the club since Day 1 and saw the institutional dysfunction up close, including this correspondent, honestly wondered if MLSE could ever get its act together and turn this troubled franchise around.

Five years on, Toronto FC is the model franchise of Major League Soccer, what every other team in the league aspires to be. The investment from MLSE in players the calibre of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley is a big factor. It’s not the only factor, though.

Tim Leiweke started a revolution within the club. He was a man of great ambition, famously asking, “Why can’t we be great?” He was the first head honcho of MLSE that put TFC on equal footing with the Maple Leafs and Raptors, raising the profile of the soccer club within the organization. Love him or hate him – and he has many critics – there can be no denying that Leiweke’s short tenure at MLSE was a major turning point for Toronto FC.

GM Tim Bezbatchenko, the chief architect of TFC’s renaissance, has shown great vision and acumen in building one of the deepest teams in league history with hidden gems (Victor Vazquez), MLS veterans (Drew Moor and Justin Morrow) and promising young prospects (Marky Delgado and Raheem Edwards). Now approaching his three-year anniversary, Greg Vanney has grown into his role over time and become one of the best coaches in MLS, establishing his firm imprint on the team and setting a tactical foundation that brings out the best in his players.

All of this has led to a major culture change at TFC. Whereas disorder and chaos once ruled the day, now it’s all about stability, and long-term planning.

What’s especially impressive about this team isn’t that depth of talent, or the ruthlessness with which they’ve dispatched opponents this season. Rather, it’s the collective focus and mentality of the group.

Sunday’s win in Montreal against their fiercest rival was a grand occasion, one worthy of a celebration. Instead, the post-match scene in the TFC locker-room was sedate, and sombre. There were no high fives over a job well done, but quiet reflection on the previous 90 minutes.

The players aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and they aren’t believing the growing hype that surrounds them, either.

“We feel like there’s still lots of room for improvement. There’s still lots of points left on the table. We haven’t done anything yet. We have to keep going. We have to keep going, we have to keep working with humility,” captain Michael Bradley quietly offered.

Vanney was similarly composed, downplaying the club-record 56 points, and said he was more proud of the selfless work from his players off the field that nobody sees.

“In order to achieve anything, you have to have that kind of a culture in your locker-room, and that for me is the proudest thing,” Vanney stated.

Toronto FC has come a long way in five years. Now it’s time to go a little bit further and win the MLS Cup.

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!

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