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Treble in the bag, Toronto FC eye CONCACAF Champions League history

TORONTO – With a memorable 2017 coming to an end, Toronto FC, after a brief rest, will turn their focus to the challenges that the new year will bring.

On Monday, TFC will learn who their opponent will be in the Round of 16 of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League. No MLS team has ever won the competition, and Toronto, who became the first MLS club to ever win the domestic treble this year, hope to make more history in the CCL.

“The Champions League is a goal of this club,” GM Tim Bezbatchenko said on locker clean out day. “We've said from the very beginning that we want to be a consistent contender for championships in North America, [not just] in MLS. To win Champions League has always been a goal.”

“This group is capable of doing that. Now is the time to push forward and see if [we] can do something special.”

With the Round of 16 series set to be played between Feb. 20 and March 1, TFC have adjusted their preseason plans, reporting earlier and altering location of their camp. They will begin in LA, as they have the last few years, but instead of Orlando for the next portion, a more southern destination awaits.

“We've adjusted our travel plans,” explained head coach Greg Vanney. “We will go to Mexico and play some Mexican opponents. We have a number of games lined up; enough that everybody gets opportunities to play. We'll have enough [players] to field two teams.

“That will give us a feel of what it's like to play in Mexico, to play that type of opponent. So that our guys have that experience under their belt before we start CONCACAF.”

Toronto will host the second leg of the initial home-and-away series, a date that falls between Feb. 27 and March 1, a window not known for pleasant weather in Southern Ontario.

Despite the risk of frigid conditions, club president Bill Manning was adamant: “We're playing all the games at BMO Field; hopefully four games.”

Manning has experience in the CONCACAF Champions League, having seen his Real Salt Lake side reach the final in 2011.

“We went down in Monterrey in the first leg, tied 2-2, then lost at home 1-0,” recalled Manning. “It gave me a taste of how close an MLS team could come to winning. We were right there with them.

“[Toronto] is as strong an MLS team as has ever played,” he continued. “I think we can do something special. We can't wait. This team is hungry; this team has desire. Already now that is the next check that this team is setting its sights on.”

Long a pipe dream, what would a Champions League title mean for MLS?

“[It] brings our league to another level. It's the last hurdle,” said Manning “We've had two franchises come close: Real Salt Lake, Montreal Impact a couple of years ago. It would gain worldwide respect. And you would then have an MLS team in the [Club World Cup]. Wouldn't that be tremendous if Toronto FC can do that one day?”

That is not to overlook the challenges, which Manning summarized as “the Mexican teams have more depth, more weapons, than we do.”

But this TFC side is different for one primary reason: “This team will no have fear in CONCACAF.”

“Going into Mexico, going into these other countries, is not easy. MLS teams have not had the depth and the players have not had the wherewithal of what it takes to go in and win,” explained Manning. “We have players like Michael [Bradley] and Jozy [Altidore], who have done it. Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez are not going to be intimidated to go down there. Guys like Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, veterans that know what it takes to win. We have a team that can go, compete, and, hopefully, be the first that can do that for MLS.”

The players are looking forward to this next challenge. Obstacles, however mighty, have a way of falling before them.

“No MLS team has ever won that,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono. “But no MLS team had ever done the treble, no MLS team got 69 points in the regular season. We've done those things, so why can't we go and do this?

“The talent is there, no doubt about that, we showed it. The biggest game of the year we played the other team off the field,” added Bono, alluding to the 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup final. “It's not a question if can we do it, it's going out and doing it. I'm excited.”