TORONTO – This is not how 2018 was supposed to go.
Through nine league matches, Toronto FC have already lost six, one more than they did in all of 2017, where the club set a new MLS record for most points in a season with 69.
Gaps have opened: Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta United have an 18-point lead over the Reds; the holders of the East's sixth and final playoff spot, the New England Revolution, have a 10-point advantage.
Be that as it may, TFC are not worried; expectations have not changed.
“We expect to do the same things we did last year,” said Alex Bono on Tuesday. “We've made it tougher on ourselves. We have high expectations; from that perspective, it's been a disappointing start, but I don't think it's anything we can't overcome.”
Seven points from nine matches has Toronto in the basement of the East. But with 25 games remaining, 75 points still on the table, all that changes is the perspective.
“We need to be in the moment; less thinking about the big picture,” said Greg Vanney. “Our goals need to be focused on winning the first 15 minutes. Stop talking about Supporters' Shield; start talking about the process, the little things that it takes on a day-to-day basis to be a good team.
“The other stuff takes care of itself,” added Vanney. “It doesn't make sense to talk about in the playoffs, out of the playoffs; makes sense to prepare for Orlando.”
Even with Atlanta’s big head start, the Reds believe they can defend both their 2017 MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield titles.
“We set our goals at the beginning of the season and we haven't changed them,” said Bono, including the Shield. “We have to believe. We've seen this team go on some incredible strings over the last year or two. Knowing we have that capability is enough to say this is not out of play. Until it is mathematically, it'll still be our goal.”
But one of those goals, a new record points total, is slipping away.
“We wanted it to be higher,” admitted Bono. “The points we've lost early make that tough. If we find a way to lift the Shield, we've done a really good job. That's the expectation, that's what we want to do. A number of points is not even in focus right now.”
With others fast out the gates, watching the standings at this point is a fool's errand.
“You try and put standings on the back burner,” said Bono. “Pick up as many points as you can. I'm following along, but for me the main focus has to be us.
“It can't be: Atlanta won again this weekend, NYCFC won again,” he continued. “We are going to pick up points for us, not to gain ground, but because we're going to feel good about winning games. Our confidence will grow and then when it comes time to get down to it, start to look at the standings.”
“Two Friday games, coming back to BMO Field, we know the support is going to be good,” said Bono. “We know we have to come out, be intense, be aggressive. It's a good chance to pick up some points, some momentum.”
But it's far too early to be calling anything 'must-win.'
“We're a ways away from that,” said Vanney. “I like when our group feels like they're on the clock and they have to answer. It snaps us into doing what we are best at; that's where we need to be right now.”