TORONTO – Don’t call it a dynasty.
As Toronto FC prepare for their Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run to resume on Wednesday night against Atlanta United (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada), their third Eastern Conference Final in four years, Greg Vanney was asked if it was appropriate to start throwing around the word ‘dynasty.’
“I’ll let you know after,” quipped the TFC coach.
Two straight Eastern Conference titles. Back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances in 2016 and 2017 – winning the latter. An epic run through the Concacaf Champions League in 2018, reaching the final only to lose in a penalty shootout. Never mind three straight Canadian Championships before falling in this year’s final on spot-kicks to the Montreal Impact.
And now back with another deep run into the postseason following an injury-riddled 2018 campaign, once-lovable losers TFC have become a force to be reckoned with in MLS and beyond.
“They’re up there,” said Vanney of his team’s place in the pantheon of MLS greats. “Just for the stretch we had from 2016 to the end of Champions League. There is really no team that has gone as far, won in the places that we were able to win, endure some of the challenges that we were able to endure and be a penalty kick or a finish from six yards away from winning. That is a statement.
“Those games, in some ways, are bigger than any games that you’re going to play against [MLS] opponents. We met those challenges,” he continued. “So when they talk about the greatest teams in MLS and who are they, those teams have to be able to go to Azteca and beat those [opponents] to rise to being one of the best in this league. Those are the [matches] that really question how much talent you have and how good of a team you really are.”
Toronto’s absence from the playoffs last year, their 2017 title defense, is a knock against their candidacy. But Vanney maintains: “Last year’s team would be in this position. If we stayed healthy, I would have put us right up at the top.
“We went through some struggles, but from what we were able to accomplish right up until the Champions League final to what we’ve been able to do again we show that that was a fluke, that was not what the club was about,” he explained. “For me, this team is up there with some of the best that have been around.”
To add to the trophy cabinet, Toronto face stiff competition.
Atlanta, defending MLS Cup champions, are looking for back-to-back Eastern Conference titles themselves. In the West, meanwhile, Seattle Sounders FC are also looking for a third conference final victory in four years. And LAFC, though at this stage for the first time, have done so in a style unmatched.
Vanney pointed to “culture” as the foundation of sustained success.
“The people we have in here, the guys who have been on this team, also [the staff’s] relationship with the players to push to be great all the time,” he explained. “You don’t always meet the standard that you want and we definitely had our challenges.”
That Toronto return to this stage despite the departures of two vital players in January – Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez – stands out.
“When you lose two of the best players in the league, your team is going to take a transformation. And for us to do it within the same year and now be deep in the playoffs with an opportunity to go to MLS Cup means that there are a lot of guys with the right mentality and the right ideas in place that are being thrust forward by everyone here,” said the coach. “That’s what it comes down to.
“When you do that as many times as we’ve been able to, it’s not an accident. There is a formula there that works,” he added. “We’ve been able to find ways to continue and it’s what we’re always striving for. We don’t want to be good in the one-off year, we want to be good every year. We want to be a challenger. That’s what our ownership expects from us; that’s what we expect from ourselves.”