TORONTO – For those assembled at Real Sports Bar & Grill on Friday morning for the President's Breakfast and unveiling of Toronto FC's new primary jersey, the result of the 2016 MLS Cup was upside down.
After dominating much of the play in last December’s championship clash at BMO Field, TFC lost on penalty kicks to the visiting Seattle Sounders following a scoreless draw, something that still rankles months later.
“We were better than Seattle last year,” stated TFC president Bill Manning. “From August on, we were the best team in Major League Soccer. The series with Montreal was epic. It showed the resolve of this team … to go down, fight back, claw. This team has special qualities. For us, it's just the beginning.
“We don't just want to win an MLS championship. We want be a team that can achieve championships year after year,” he continued. “Longevity – that's what we want.”
Though he would not be drawn into questions of ‘better,’ Reds general manager Tim Bezbatchenko echoed the sentiment of a goal unmet.
“We feel like something was taken from us,” said Bezbatchenko. “You play a good game, a style, in a way that you feel can get you a result. … The players are using that as motivation.”
The tagline for this season, as indicated by TFC’s slick new promotional video, is 'Dawn of the Reds,' seeing last season's heights not as a pinnacle, but as a new foundation.
“The first eight years we were just talking about trying to make the playoffs,” recalled Bezbatchenko. “Now we're disappointed that we didn't win the Supporters’ Shield, that we fell short at the end [by] a penalty kick in MLS Cup. It's incredible how far we've come.”
For this new era – new primary kit, new season, renewed sponsorship with BMO, expanded and renovated stadium, and revitalized fanbase – Bezbatchenko wants TFC “to be a club that people are afraid of.”
“The players come in to preseason with a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “There's a team chemistry that I've never seen. The club is together.”
Though it will not be easy to replicate the 2016 playoff scenes, stranger things have happened.
“Last year, Portland and Columbus, MLS Cup finalists, didn't even make the playoffs,” cautioned Bezbatchenko, pointing to the dangers posed by MLS’ parity. “We have to be concerned about that; understand that there are going to be ups and downs, not to make the lows too low. It's going to be a challenging year. You can't expect that just because we got to MLS Cup last year that we deserve anything. We only deserve what we earn and that happens every game, week in, week out.”
But in these heady days, a little more than a week away from the season opener on March 4 at Real Salt Lake, the goal is clear.
“Winning MLS Cup,” declared Bezbatchenko. “There are a couple of steps along the way: the Canadian Championship, the Supporters’ Shield. Those are goals that the team has. You put yourself in a position then to make a run for MLS Cup. The team has the belief.”
Added Manning: “You'll hear it from players. We can finish the job. You come together with success, but sometimes in losing you come together too. This group experienced that devastating loss; it's brought them together with that little bit of extra determination … of unfinished business.
“We want to [fill the trophy case] … To be one of the best clubs in North America. We're not there yet, still have a lot of work to do, but that's where we want to be,” he added. “'Dawn of the Reds,' really we're talking about the next decade: What can we be? The first decade was a little difficult. We're hoping that the next can be [one of] strength.”