It was hard to see if Alex Bono was smiling under his face mask this week after entering the Toronto FC record book with his 29th career shutout and 52nd victory.
But his class was hard to miss. As was his appreciation for what he has.
Once the team’s starting goalkeeper, the 26-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., has been Quentin Westberg’s backup since early in the 2019 season. Wednesday’s 1-0 win in New England marked Bono’s 100th career start for Toronto in all competitions, but only his third of this pandemic-affected season.
Bono has yet to concede a goal in starts July 21, Sept. 23 and Oct. 7.
Some might chafe at such unrewarded perfection. Not Bono, who made a point of starting his postgame virtual meeting with the media Wednesday with a thank you to the MLS club "for allowing me to have the opportunity to play as many games for such an awesome club.
“I’ve been here six years now,” he said. “If you told me six years down the road, I would have started 100 games when I first walked into the training facility, I probably would have thought you were crazy. I’m so honoured, I’m so blessed to be part of this organization and so grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me.”
It has taken Bono time and perspective to get here.
Difficult, disappointing, discouraging and frustrating were some of the words he used last season after losing his No. 1 role.
Bono played six of the first nine league games in 2019. He then watched from the bench for the next 23 before coming in for a 15-minute cameo last September.
His next league start came 10 months later, at the MLS is Back Tournament in July.
“It has been a different role for me,” Bono said. “All I’ve been focusing on is going in day-in and day-out, training as hard as I can, trying to put myself in the best position that when I do get these opportunities that I take them with my full ability because I’ve lived this as much as anyone – you don’t know when the next one is going to come.”
Toronto’s history in handling goalkeepers has been spotty. Milos Kocic, Stefan Frei, Joe Bendik, Chris Konopka and Clint Irwin likely can all make a case for being hard done by here.
But coach Greg Vanney has been relatively smooth in engineering change in goal, first in 2017 from Irwin to Bono and then Bono to Westberg. Prior to the 2019 season, Toronto traded Irwin, who had lost the starting job to Bono in 2017, to Colorado and acquired Westberg.
Vanney knew what he was getting in Westberg.
“He’s a different type of goalkeeper than our group ... Not quite as big (as Bono) but he’s very good in distribution. His feet are very clean,” Vanney said at the time. “And so they can help push each other in different ways and I think his experience will help Alex as well. But I also think he is a viable candidate to push Alex for that first position.”
A fine shot-stopper, the six-foot-three 195-pound Bono is also good in the air – able to command his penalty box, although he uncharacteristically flubbed two catches Wednesday.
The 34-year-old Westberg, born in France to an American father and French mother, is listed at 6-1 and 174 pounds. He came through the prestigious Clairefontaine academy – an incubator for French talent.
Blessed with remarkable reflexes and an outfield player’s feet, the father of four also brings experience and a sense of calm to the table. And he rarely makes mistakes.
That was needed after a poor 2018 season that saw Toronto, after winning the 2017 MLS Cup with Bono in goal, tumble from first overall at 20-5-9 with a league-record 69 points to 19th with a record of 10-18-6 and just 36 points. TFC conceded a franchise-worst 64 goals in league play in 2018 – up from 37 in 2017 – while posting a club-low three shutouts.
The blame cannot be laid at Bono’s feet. Injuries ravaged the backline in front of him and other competitions took a toll on the team.
Toronto defended its Canadian Championship and came within a kick of winning the CONCACAF Champions League. But the team never recovered from the April 25 penalty shootout loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the final.
Last year, Vanney offered a glimpse into his goalkeeping choice by saying it’s all part of finding “the right formula for what we want our game to look like and how we think we can be successful.”
That was Westberg, a reliable no surprises 'keeper.
Going into this season, Bono said he was looking forward to a “fresh start.”
“It was passed along to me that every year you come in with a clean slate and so I have to take that at face value and say put your best foot forward, give your best go and see what happens,” he said in a pre-season interview.
"Obviously last year wasn’t what I had hoped for. But it’s a new year this year, it’s a bit of a different group this year. So there’ll be opportunities in the next couple of months to stake a claim and get myself an opportunity to being back to being the guy. Other than that, there’s not much you can really do.
“I’m here. I’m happy to be here. And until this team has no more use for me, I’ll continue to come in every day, put the work in, be a team player and do what’s best for myself and for the team. For me that’s base level of how every professional should be. And if you can’t live by that then that’s your decision.”
Vanney believes an off-season stint training with Barnsley, an English second-tier side, was valuable for Bono.
“He came back talking about how happy he is to be here and he saw things from a little different perspective. He came back just ready to work, every single day.”
Bono wanted to train elsewhere to get a different perspective on the game as well as up his off-season preparation.
Located in South Yorkshire between Sheffield and Leeds, Barnsley is a former coal-mining town. His time there turned out to be an eye-opener.
“It’s different,” Bono said. "They don’t have beautiful green fields like we do and nice clean gyms and locker-rooms. They don’t have video rooms that we can sit in, nice folded chairs. It’s much more bare-bones than it is here.
“Obviously we have some of the most beautiful facilities in all of the league and going over there you know that unless you’re at one of those really top clubs, you’re not going to get the same level of care.”
Bottom line, Vanney believes Bono has his mojo back after “a tough stretch” in 2018.
“He’s really just found some peace and some confidence again and assuredness. He looks solid back there,” he said.
“We’ve got two good goalkeepers right now, two goalkeepers that I believe are in form and we’re going to try and keep it that way,” he added.