Under normal circumstances, Toronto FC’s 3-2-2 record wouldn’t inspire many debates about whether or not TFC are the best team in the Eastern Conference.

These aren’t exactly normal circumstances.

For the second straight year, Toronto have begun the season with a lengthy stretch of road games to accommodate renovations to BMO Field. They have played their first seven matches on the road, and face one more on Sunday at Portland (3:30 pm ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN4, RDS2 in Canada) before they open up their home schedule at BMO Field on May 7 against FC Dallas.

Starting the season with such a lengthy road trip – the eight games comprise nearly half of TFC’s 2016 regular-season road schedule – is a daunting task. Toronto have played every match in an unfamiliar, often intimidating environment, flown thousands of miles, dealt with abridged practice weeks to accommodate travel days and left their families for roughly three days per week for the better part of the last two months.

The trip could’ve broken Toronto, who have only finished with more than 11 road points in two of their previous nine seasons. Instead, it’s been revelatory, with revamped TFC looking like the best team in the East. With a win on Sunday in Portland, Toronto will end their road trip with the best points-per-game average of any of the seven teams in MLS history that began a season with a similar slog. No matter what happens this weekend, they’ll be one of just two teams in that group to finish their trip with a record of .500 or better.

2016 TOR
1999 CLB*
2015 TOR
2012 HOU
2006 CHI
2003 LA
2011 SKC

*The 1999 season was part of MLS' shootout era; Columbus had two shootout wins, both of which counted for one point.

Any road stretch of this length is difficult, but the positive results have allowed TFC to fall into a routine, making the journey seem a little less taxing than what they may have originally imagined.

“The funny thing is, as daunting as I think it sounds, once you’re actually in the process of eight games on the road in a row, it just becomes the norm,” center back Drew Moor told MLSsoccer.com over the phone earlier this week. “Yeah, it’s daunting, and it’s never easy on the road in MLS, but when you knew that’s how it was going to be when the schedule came out, you just mentally prepare yourselves. You get yourselves into that routine, and I think it becomes, not necessarily easier, but a little more manageable.”

Just how have TFC pulled off their excellent start? Apart from the magnificent Sebastian Giovinco, the main reason is their new defensive identity, pieced together through four excellent offseason additions and a preseason emphasis on building the sort of discipline necessary to grind out road results.

Unlike past offseasons, when TFC chased huge, often foreign, often attacking names, head coach Greg Vanney and GM Tim Bezbatchenko brought in some proven MLS defensive talent this winter. Moor was signed in free agency, and out-of-contract right back Steven Beitashour, central midfielder Will Johnson and goalkeeper Clint Irwin were acquired in trades.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the additions have paid dividends. Toronto may end this season’s trip with a somewhat similar record to the 3-4 MLS mark they posted in their 2015 season-opening slog, but this start has a much different feel. TFC were high-flying last year, but they were also a mess in the back, giving up 58 goals on the season, tied for the most in MLS. Eleven of those goals against came in their first six games.

It’s been a different story this year, as TFC have given up just five goals in their seven matches, the fewest in the league. Beitashour, Johnson and Irwin have each started all of those contests, while Moor has started six of the seven. Together, they’ve helped TFC grind out some impressive results, helping hold leads in shutout victories at D.C. and Montreal in Toronto’s last two matches and allowing the fifth-fewest shots on goal in the league.

Part of that is MLS knowhow – something Beitashour, Johnson, Irwin and Moor all have in spades. At the start of the year, they’d combined for 723 regular season appearances, three MLS Cup titles and a Supporters’ Shield. Moor and Johnson both captained their previous clubs. There’s no surprising these guys. They know all about playing on the road in MLS – the long flights, the different stadiums, opponents’ tendencies – and their experience has been crucial in helping Toronto navigate their mammoth road trip.

Stejskal: New defensive identity, acquisitions key to TFC's hot road start - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/image_landscape/s3/images/Will%20J.jpg?null&itok=aywG3CJ5&c=9831c17d159388521b0f9832c983ec22

That sort of MLS experience has never really been a hallmark for TFC. You can’t buy players who deeply understand the intricacies of the league like that from overseas, where travel typically doesn’t involve long distances and usually doesn’t require a passport.

Of course, all that MLS savvy wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t organized into a cohesive unit. After last year’s issues, head coach Greg Vanney needed to build a stable foundation his team could rely on if the attack ever went cold. He did that in preseason, creating a more disciplined, organized group in a defense-intensive camp.

“It was very focused. You could tell Greg Vanney and the coaching staff had a purpose: to be difficult to play against and fix some of the defensive issues that haunted them a little bit last year,” Moor said. “It’s not just the back four and the goalie, it’s not just the back six. It’s the whole squad, all 11 guys on the field and really all 28 throughout the squad that have to have this mentality that, ‘Listen, we’re going eight games on the road, we have to be difficult to play against. We can’t give up a lot of goals, we can’t give up easy goals.’”

They haven’t, and Moor thinks that will continue as TFC moves back into BMO. They might concede a few more goals once they start playing a bit more openly at home, but I don’t see too much reason to think they'll have a significant defensive drop. 

If Toronto do keep things stingy in the back, watch out. They’ve sat back so far this year, scoring just eight goals, getting out-shot in five of their seven matches and losing the possession battle in all but one. Those numbers should go way up once they get settled in at home. When they do, we won’t just be talking about TFC as the best team in the East – we’ll be looking at a favorite for the Supporters’ Shield, too.