TORONTO – Alex Bono has not been happy with his performances.
Since the Concacaf Champions League in the spring, not much has gone his and Toronto FC's way. With five matches remaining in the MLS regular season, they are on the verge of elimination from the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“Losing is never fun,” said Bono on Tuesday after the latest defeat away to the New York Red Bulls. “None of us are OK with it, with going out there and making mistakes. It's not our goal to be mediocre. The game becomes less fun when you're losing; less fun when sometimes you're the reason that you're losing.”
Having excelled in TFC's historic 2017 season and guided the side to the Champions League final with some stunning stops, including a gem against Paul Aguilar in the semifinal against Club America at the Azteca, Bono slipped up against Chivas de Guadalajara in the first leg of the final, misreading the flight of an Alan Pulido free kick and has struggled to find his form in MLS play.
He was caught out of position against the New England Revolution in May, would let a Kemar Lawrence game-winner get past him early against the New York Red Bulls in July, and spill the rebound from a Chris Wondolowski attempt in August against the San Jose Earthquakes.
The low point came a week later against the Montreal Impact. He spilled another shot from Alejandro Silva straight to Saphir Taider, who Bono then brought down as Ken Krolicki tucked the ball into the open net. A raised flag spared the damage, but the goalkeeper was left gritting his teeth and clapping himself over the ears.
“When things start to get away from you, you start to compound errors. That one was the 'I can't take it any more, I need to do something to get out of this,'” said Bono. “I like to think of myself as a mentally strong individual, who gets over mistakes quickly, but thus far I had never had a stretch where no matter what I did, what I tried, I felt like I wasn't in my own head and another mistake would happen.”
Clint Irwin would start the next two matches for TFC.
“I respected Greg [Vanney]'s decision,” said Bono. “As much as I didn't want to admit it, I knew that I needed to reset and refocus, go back to the basics. Sometimes it's good to get knocked down so you have that period of self-reflection.”
Vanney noticed his goalkeeper wasn't himself: “He seems in his head, questioning his preparation, his decisions in games. I was there once, as a player, where you go through bad stretches and you're questioning things. I know what it feels and looks like.”
Bono didn't want to admit it at first: “I put it off for a while, thinking it was a game here or there. I made a couple mistakes; wrote it up to that.”
But a conversation between the two convinced him it was time to mentally reset.
“I did some meditation, would go sit by the water, watch the planes take off, detach myself from the frustration I was going through, that the team had with me, that the fans had with me; try and find it in myself to say, 'You've got this,'” explained Bono. “This is the sport, mistakes happen, you're going to dip in form. For me, it's how you respond.”
In 2016, when he was first stepping into the starting role for an injured Irwin, Bono would have what he called at the time '"The Accident" on July 16 in a 2-1 away loss to San Jose. Up two men, Toronto could not find the game-winner and Simon Dawkins squeezed one through Bono's hands.
Bono took responsibility and responded with a stunning 2017 campaign and an MLS Cup. He credited the recent September camp with the US men's national team and conversations with his father as helping him get to a better place this time around.
“[I] came back refreshed, ready to go,” said Bono. “I feel much closer to myself. Working back to full confidence.”
Added Vanney: “Still a work in progress. You don't snap fingers and you're out of it, you have to work. He will find his way; we will help him.”