TORONTO – Never count out the champs.
Currently on the outside looking in, Toronto have closed the gap between themselves and the playoff places to six points heading into Week 24’s round of fixtures.
Not so long ago, many thought the defending champions were lying on the mat, the count approaching 10, but as the summer burns on and the final stretch comes into view, there is some fight left in TFC.
“It's starting to [feel the same as last year],” Alex Bono said after training on Friday. “We ground out a tough road win in Chicago; played them again. The second half of that game, we came in the room [thinking], 'that felt just about right'; felt about where we should be as a team and the form we showed last year was coming out. That result was a big momentum shift.”
That there was ever any doubt, for Bono, “is ridiculous”
“Everybody knows what we did last season,” he said. “That teams have forgotten the form that we can have is ridiculous. We can use that to our advantage going forward.”
“Any team that is looking down on us, thinks we don't have it or we're not as good as we were last year... screw that,” Bono added. “We are. We have the same level of ability, maybe even higher. It's taken us this long to find our form, now that we [have], it’s time to go out and show teams that we're here to play.”
The path ahead doesn't get any easier.
It starts with NYCFC on Sunday, then the second leg of the Canadian Championships final against Vancouver Whitecaps FC Wednesday at BMO Field followed by another long flight to visit the San Jose Earthquakes next Saturday. Then a derby against the Montreal Impact in Toronto ahead of another cross-continental trip to face the in-form Portland Timbers to close out August.
With so many matches and travel, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney has said he will need to “manage [the] group appropriately.” Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, and Gregory van der Wiel were able to be rested midweek in Vancouver, while Drew Moor is nearing his return from a long injury layoff.
“That says something: about the league, about clubs with ambition. You want to play in games that mean something,” added Altidore. “That's what you call raising the bar.”
“[My comment] was more about people forgetting that we're the champions, that we won everything, and until that changes we're still the champions,” Vanney said. “That is where I took a little bit of umbrage because everybody wants to crown [Atlanta] as the champion already.”
“You have to win a lot of games, playoff games, to do that,” Vanney added. “They're a good team, no question, a very good team. But there is still a lot of work to be done to win something.”
NYCFC's Dome Torrent may rightly be wary, but for TFC, Sunday's match isn't about sending messages.
“The most important thing is the result, our performance, keeping momentum moving forward,” Vanney said. “More than making any statements.”
Talk, after all, is cheap.
“There is tons of talk throughout the league; it's been a long season, still a lot to go,” Justin Morrow said. “[That we're contenders] is what we're showing now. No one in this locker room thinks that it's over. We know that once we get on a roll, we have as a good a chance as any to win an MLS Cup.”