There are no consolation prizes in professional sports, but there are memories and legacies.
Early in the year, while Toronto FC turned their record-setting 2017 season into a Concacaf Champions League final run, we were talking about their place in MLS folklore. Six months later, they could still achieve lasting relevance, but not in the way they had hoped or envisioned.
The Reds have had a calamitous season. They’ve lost almost twice as many games as they’ve won and likely won’t make the playoffs – FiveThirtyEight.com gives them a 4 percent chance. When we talk about this Toronto team, will we mention the 2017 success or the 2018 collapse? History might remember their great fall from grace as much as their original greatness.
But the Reds have a chance on Wednesday to change the narrative in the inaugural Campeones Cup, against 2017 Liga MX Apertura winners and “Campeon de Campeones” Tigres UANL (8:15 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TSN, TVAS – Full TV & streaming info).
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While we want sports to be a meritocracy, we also know that a nine-month season invites randomness. Injuries, suspensions and distractions are inevitable, and need to be navigated. A great team sometimes has a bad year.
With TFC right now, here’s the question that keeps resurfacing: How would it feel to draw Toronto in the Knockout Round? The thought makes my stomach churn. Nobody in their right mind should want to face them.
For as bad as Toronto have been in 2018, they might still be the best team in MLS. They demolished the league in 2017, putting up a record 2.03 points per game throughout the regular season. They embarrassed Seattle in MLS Cup 2017, won the Canadian Championship and beat Tigres and Club America en route to reaching that fateful CCL final.
And here’s the part we have forgotten at times this year – they returned 10 of 11 starters. On paper, they upgraded in the 11th spot, adding a player in Gregory van der Wiel who started in a World Cup final.
There have been flashes in 2018, when they’ve shown their class: They dominated Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first 45 minutes; they outplayed New York City FC, even while down a man; they put Montreal in their place; they made the LA Galaxy look like youth players for 30 minutes.
The flashes of dominance have undoubtedly been too few. TFC have been infuriating more often than not. Aside from their injuries, they’ve often appeared to lack focus, intensity and discipline, and I make no attempt to excuse the Reds’ inconsistency. And yet ... the flashes have been there. The spurts have made something clear: They’ve still got it. At their best, there might not be anyone better.
They have a chance to remind everyone of that Wednesday night in the Campeones Cup. Toronto couldn’t ask for a better stage right now. As former Tigres and TFC striker Herculez Gomez put it, “Tigres is a dynasty and they’re one of the richer, if not richest, clubs in Mexico at this moment. They have no problem spending what they need to spend to bring in who they need to bring in … [manager] Tuca Ferretti is the Alex Ferguson of their league. They have it all.”
Beat Tigres and Toronto can prove to everyone 2018 has been a fluke, can show everyone around MLS that TFC remain still the standard, even if 2018 has been a disaster: Others might have had a better year, but we are still the best.
It leaves head coach Greg Vanney with a nearly impossible decision.
He can …
- prioritize the upcoming MLS game on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls, three days after the Campeones Cup, in an attempt to salvage a probably-lost MLS campaign (4 percent!)
- prioritize the Tigres game, and risk crucial league points on Saturday, in an attempt to make a theoretical point.
- try to win both, playing his best XI 180 minutes in a four-day stretch, and risk their final four MLS games.
It'd be a shame if the conversation around Toronto’s incredibly good 2017 team was overrun by their infuriating 2018. Campeones Cup provides a chance to build a moat around their 2017 legacy. TFC can still make the playoffs, but they probably won’t. Beating Tigres would remind everyone that they remain a team to be reckoned with.