Alex Bono - Toronto TC - solo with ball

TORONTO – When Greg Vanney submits Toronto FC's team-sheet for the 2017 MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, many of the names will be the same ones on last year's edition.

Michael Bradley will be there, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, too. But alongside the additions of Victor Vazquez and Chris Mavinga will be the name of Alex Bono, TFC's starting 'keeper.

The journey from Baldwinsville, New York, just outside of Syracuse, to the MLS Cup final was a long one for the 23-year old 'keeper. Like most backstops, his early days in the game were as a field player, with Bono lining up at forward until he moved into net at age 10. 

“I always wanted to be a forward, score goals,” said Bono. “You get in goal because you're the biggest or you can catch the ball well. It stuck from there.”

With his first youth club, Bono would “travel around the state of New York, play in different tournaments and local leagues.” After that came the US Soccer Development Academy when he was 15, where he traveled from state to state, playing nationally and in showcases.

“It was a team based out of Rochester, which was the closest,” said Bono. “Played with them U-16, U-18, until I went to college.”

That was where it got more serious, though a pro career was still a faraway dream. A college education and help paying for it were the aim then.

“I'm not sure about career,” he said. “It was a pathway to a good education. That was the goal of the kids on that team. It would be amazing to be a professional soccer player, but the chances were so slim. At that point you're just trying to keep playing. You love the game, don't want to give it up. If you can play in school while getting education, that's all we could ever ask for.”

Those talks began in his junior year of high school.

“Syracuse was after me early,” recalled Bono. “They [were] trying to get me signed before other teams could recruit me because I was in their backyard.”

Heart set on the college experience away from home, Bono was lukewarm on the prospect, but his major, broadcasting, helped change his mind.

“Originally, I didn't want to go,” said Bono. “Then I realized their school [the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications] is consistently top five in the country. To be able to pursue that, to play soccer and start for four years, was the perfect scenario.”

Ahead of his junior year at Syracuse, Bono heard that clubs in MLS were showing interest. Where some might let that inflate their ego, he focused on his game. After the season, just a few days before the MLS Combine, he received a Generation adidas offer from the league.

“[MLS] was waiting on a couple guys, they threw me an offer, and I said, 'This is a better deal than I would get as a senior; an opportunity to live out a dream of mine, a dream that had develop, that few get to experience,” Bono said.

A few weeks later he was selected sixth overall in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by TFC.

“We saw a player who had a lot of confidence,” TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko said by phone on Monday. “That's one thing that as a goalkeeper you need to get through, not just the good times, but when you make mistakes or when the team concedes goals.”

Character, confidence propel TFC's Alex Bono to No. 1 job, MLS Cup start -

Though selecting a goalkeeper that high in the draft is unorthodox, Bezbatchenko did apply his 'best player available' logic to the situation.

“A lot of players have the physical attributes and the skill, but he had the character,” he said. “We felt over the long term there might be an opportunity for him to step up.”

For Bono to be the ‘keeper for the majority of TFC’s record-breaking season, preparing to start in his first MLS Cup final, speaks to the shrewdness of that evaluation.

Still, it wasn’t until late September that Vanney finally gave Bono the No. 1 label; he’d emphasized instead that with Bono and Clint Irwin, Toronto had two starting caliber ‘keepers.

“He had gotten far enough, proven his value,” said Vanney. “There was a time where he needs to also feel a little comfort and security and be ready to move forward.”

That September statement came as a surprise to Bono, but had the desired impact.

“He hadn't spoken to me about that,” said Bono. “It's an incredible feeling to have the backing of your manager, for him to have the confidence in you to say, 'You're the No. 1.'

“It has to be the mentality of every goalkeeper, to train and play as though you're the No. 1,” said Bono. “That is always going to be in back of mind. I've always tried to prepare, train, and take my opportunities as if I'm the No. 1 because at that point in time you are.”