TORONTO – While temperatures continue to sink from the nippy chill some of my Canadian friends describe, still, as patio weather, at Toronto FC’s Kia Training Center, the proceedings are running warm. The countdown is on for when Toronto FC try, for the second year in a row, to claim MLS Cup glory in their home territory (Saturday, 4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás in US; TSN1/4/5, TVAS in Canada).
That’s, uh, plenty of pressure – especially when the training center’s semi-infamous trophy case looms over the entry staircase to the complex’s main building.
But hey – one slot’s already been filled, and the team also scooped up its first Supporters’ Shield this year, on the back of a famous points record-setting regular season. All of that means the mood at training for the Reds is focused, but excited. If there’s any dread or apprehension among any of the squad about facing a daunting rematch, literally no one is showing it.
Indeed, club staples like Drew Moor and Justin Morrow looked poised, and even cracked smiles on Wednesday afternoon, practically smothered as they were by a crush of eager media. All of this marks a dramatic break from the TFC days of yore, a history that includes the 2007 and 2012 seasons that saw the team wrap as the worst in the league on points that year.
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And while fans and some team long-timers suffered a real spiritual nadir, it’s clear the club’s culture has spun around 180 to take them to their current peak. Chatting with a few players and hearing from head coach Greg Vanney at training together, a few themes emerged on the biggest factors for this cultural sea change:
Vanney, not too far removed from his playing days, has impressed upon his squad a work ethic that often just borders on almost too much – and it makes his guys rise to the occasion.
Part of his method for getting Sebastian Giovinco back to form after his recent suspension involved pushing him physically — and Moor said that’s an essential quality Vanney brought to the club from his playing days.
“We were teammates at FC Dallas my first season in the league, 13 years ago; he’s the same guy,” Moor said of the Vanney of yore and now. “He wants you to come in here and dedicate your absolute best time to making yourself and this team better, whether it’s Giovinco, [Michael] Bradley, myself, whoever it is. If you’re on the field, it’s very focused and concentrated.”
At the same time, that focus flows from Vanney’s willingness to mix old- and new-school methods of putting his squad together. Much has been made of his team’s use of stats and technology, and for sure, Vanney says, he and his staff use data to “adjust the message to our group or the training.” But the culture, with him at the helm, is to leave no stone unturned. “Again, a lot of times,” he continued, “from an old-school perspective subjectively we watch the game.”
The team subtly celebrates its successes and goals constantly.
It seems like a little thing, Moor said, but the team walks into its training locker room, met by a vision and accomplishment board, of sorts, arranged by Michael Rabasca, the team's director of high performance. Quotes, photos of trophies, and motivational images about the team’s goal change frequently and are updated immediately.
“A lot of times at clubs you won’t see the updated Supporters’ Shield until the next season or whatever,” Moor said. “It seems like a small thing, but it’s a huge thing to see yourself lifting that Eastern Conference Championship trophy, that Supporters’ Shield. It reminds us that we want to succeed at this club and we’re up here giving our time to make ourselves better individually and as a team.”
Veterans – and especially the captain – have taken their devotion to their teammates and the city seriously.
Perhaps no one’s as ready to shoulder the weight of a Cup win like Bradley, who said he came to Toronto with the hope of finding a home, and building something great from a challenge.
His fellow veteran teammates have continued to sing his praises as a steward of his club team. “When I got here,” Moor said, “I could tell that he was a huge part of why this organization does everything right.”
For his own part, Bradley emphasized how his teammates and city alike have repaid his loyalty and commitment. “The club and city and the supporters and the potential is what drew me here, and that’s what has kept me here even in moments when it’s not been perfect, and that’s what will continue to keep me here,” he said.
Indeed, beyond just Bradley, the mutual admiration between the team and its fans has only strengthened the locker room and the excitement in the city. Whether all of these changes in the club’s culture translate to a Cup, then, comes down to Saturday.
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LISTEN: The 2017 MLS season comes down to this... Seattle vs. Toronto, an MLS Cup rematch that might just be the best final of all-time, depending on who you ask. Will the Sounders repeat? Will the Reds lay claim the best season of all-time? David Gass and Sam Stejskal get things started from the Six, and Andrew and Matt finish things off from the Green Room back in NYC. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!