Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with coining the concept of “flow,” that state of being “in the zone” that often marks athletes' best performances.
“The ego falls away. Time flies,” Csikszentmihalyi once explained to Wired magazine. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”
Last year, Toronto FC found and cultivated an uncommonly high level of flow to become a juggernaut that won everything in front of them and earned widespread acclaim as the best team in MLS history.
Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore continued their run as the league's best attacking duo, Michael Bradley anchored a stacked corps of do-everything midfielders and most everyone in defense enjoyed career years. Even while flashing several formations and tactical wrinkles, coach Greg Vanney could hardly set a foot wrong in steering the squad to the treble. Naturally, conversations quickly turned to TFC’s prospects for an extended dynasty.
Less than a year later, mostly the same group of players and staff are experiencing an entirely different psychomental state, and Wednesday night’s Campeones Cup loss to Tigres UANL might just have driven the Reds’ roller coaster to its lowest loop-bottom yet.
It’s already been said elsewhere: This was TFC’s 2018 in miniature. Injuries have ravaged the roster, most devastatingly in central defense, robbing the group of its foundation and forcing uncomfortable tactical adjustments. An eminently understandable early focus on Concacaf Champions League yielded a nasty hangover that metastasized into a permanent game of catch-up. The playoff hunt turned into an agonizing marathon that still has one more chapter of woe to go, as Toronto must keep chasing – for another week or two, at least – a target the quants reckon they have a 3 percent chance of attaining.
Superstars have been hurt, distracted or just looked ordinary. Previously rock-steady-reliable squad players struggled to sustain their ‘17 levels. Reinforcements haven’t all worked out. With so little time spent in familiar lineups, the chemistry between blue-chip talent that once sizzled across MLS became a furtive ghost, only flashing into view in maddeningly short spurts.
That indomitable collective mentality, so tricky to sustain even in optimal conditions, has taken a beating. And Tigres – themselves a weathered bunch probably a step or two further along the evolutionary continuum of greatness than TFC – exploited that. Even the boxscore stings: Giovinco didn’t even make it to halftime, Altidore was pulled before the hour mark, and maestro Victor Vazquez didn’t make it off the bench.
“We had a very good start. We were aggressive, did a lot of things that we wanted to do,” said Bradley postgame. “Couldn't quite get the final part of a play right to take advantage and disappointing to give up that goal. Then, as has been too often the case, we have a few minutes of madness in the second half where the game gets out of reach.”
There is no flow left in TFC at this moment.
Even if it’s not quite time for full postmortems, the inquests into how Toronto got to this point have begun. The club is compiling a list of changes for 2019, as president Bill Manning explained to MLSsoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal this week. Perhaps they will pay dividends. Maybe there are other, less obvious paths back toward that elevated state.
Everyone can make their own evaluations as to what went down by the lake this year, and we’ll see where the chips fall in the coming winter.
Even in the wake of a disappointing Campeones Cup display, TFC are one of the toughest, most resilient teams in MLS. But they look spent – mentally, physically, emotionally. The team that beat them offers a silver lining, though. Even a decade of sustained excellence amid Liga MX's turbulence has not insulated Tigres from the pain in which Toronto presently bathes.
Tigres have lost several cup finals in heartbreaking circumstances, from CCL to Copa Libertadores, opening the door to taunts from domestic rivals and adding a wizened edge to Tuca Ferretti and his squad. They’ve gotten a bit longer in the tooth lately, and usually don’t boss the league standings for long stretches of the regular season, saving their best for the Liguilla playoffs and other high-stakes situations.
They managed Campeones Cup expertly, and move along to this weekend’s Clasico Regiomontano against local rivals Monterrey. Ferretti has kept a star-studded group bought in and hungry for new achievements. Tigres don’t win them all, but they win a lot more than they lose – especially the big ones – and their trophy case reflects it.
TFC may already have learned a trick or two. The Reds made sure to defend their Canadian Championship title last month and thus will take another crack at that elusive CCL glory first thing next year. They can cultivate fresh fields of the mind while they lick their wounds this fall. The sun rises again, and the pursuit of balanced flow resumes.