Usually with Toronto FC, even at the start of the Major League Soccer season, there's an attempted alibi or a fishy story. The new players are still trying to fit in. The team played too many away games before the home opener. That big-ticket signing from Europe is a bust.
Last season changed everything: a stunning run through the MLS playoffs to the final at BMO Field. They were still playing professional soccer in Toronto in December! No trophy was won at the end of a miserably fractious final game played by a strangely timorous TFC.
The triumph that supporters will savour forever is the 7-5 aggregate victory over the Montreal Impact in two epic semi-final matches. All those goals, all that verve. And the upshot is this, at the start of the 2017 season – this is the no-alibi, no-excuses year for Toronto FC. The team that soared last year is largely intact. The momentum is there to build upon.
It took so very long to get to this point of realistic optimism. Even for those hard-core supporters heavily invested in the team, Toronto FC has long been an incubator for frustration and bitter disappointment. Sometimes, it's been outrage.
In the 10 years since TFC played its first home game as an expansion team, those fans have seen everything. The mass giddiness of the first goal scored. The seething frustration with manager Mo Johnston, who seemed happy with dull, defensive soccer that went nowhere. Then the abrupt dismissal of Johnston. The bizarre hiring of Aron Winter and the absurd fantasy that the Dutchman would instantly bring the Dutch system of smooth passing and the possession game to a bunch of hopelessly mediocre players.
There was the installation of Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans as lynchpin players from Europe. Over-the-hill, the pair of them. The insultingly loud promotion of the arrival of Jermain Defoe from the English Premier League. "It's a Bloody Big Deal" the ads screamed. It was a bloody big disaster, in the end. And through it all, Toronto's FC's grip on the imagination and loyalty of the city's soccer fans slipped away. The casual fan was ceaselessly disappointed. So many promises made and never kept.
Even the old-time, hard-core supporters find it hard to believe what is happening now. Boris Roberto Aguilar, the former president of the Red Patch Boys, TFC's biggest supporter club, witnessed the tumultuous early years and even he's bewildered now.
"After last year's crushing and heartbreaking defeat at the MLS Cup, I go into this year hopeful and optimistic. You would never imagine that I am talking about TFC by using those words. But here I am," he says.
"The team we have right now has a core of players that cannot be replaced. [Michael] Bradley, [Sebastian] Giovinco and [Jozy] Altidore are key pieces to where we are right now. But not only are they the keys to the puzzle, I'd have to say that our biggest strength going into this year is consistency. From manager to players, we have a core group that cannot be replaced. I truly hope that this core can mesh any new players."
There's hard truth in that. Bradley as a controlling midfielder, with Giovinco and Altidore in front of him as strikers, amounts to a lethal combination. Last season, Altidore and Giovinco combined for 27 goals and then in the playoffs had a combined nine goals. Those are lethal scoring stats in the MLS. But that's three players on a team of 11. And allowing for injuries and absences for international play, it is simply impossible for Altidore and Giovinco to play together week after week through an entire season.
Still, coach Greg Vanney has been relatively subdued in his off-season tinkering. There have been few acquisitions, a sign that TFC's existing team is considered to have mettle. Perhaps the most intriguing signing is Victor Vazquez, a 30-year-old deeply experienced midfielder. Vazquez, who is Spanish, started his career with Barcelona, spent several years with Club Brugge in Belgium and most recently played for Cruz Azul in Mexico. He's not a flashy player but he's in his prime and he's got guile. He may prove to be indispensable and an alternative to utter reliance on Bradley as a playmaking midfielder.
And then there is the lanky Canadian attacker Tosaint Ricketts, acquired last season and sometimes a significant presence during that playoff run. All enthusiasm and height, Ricketts lacks sublime skill but makes up for it in eagerness. A fan favourite for his keenness, he's the sort of player who stirs the supporters into one last blast of roaring appreciation in the dying moments of a key game. In the strange, mercurial chemistry of MLS teams, such a player can be more important than a dazzlingly talented striker.
TFC has that dazzle in Giovinco. The compact, ingenious Italian gave the team new life, single-handedly. On those cold, wet nights at BMO Field, when the team was all effort and desperation, it was a few moments of magic from Giovinco that made everyone in the stadium believe that anything as possible. And that even here at TFC, the game could be beautiful.
But all the chatter about how the entirety of TFC comes together as a team is idle speculation until the players toil together week in and week out. No one is privy to the dynamics of a dressing room. Rumours abound that the team is sometimes a grumpy bunch, off-field, with team unity impaired by an insider hierarchy in which the highly paid decline to socialize much with the less-paid journeymen. All of that evaporates, mind you, when the wins and the points mount up and the playoffs are on the horizon.
The MLS season is long, there is constant travel and the sheer grind can outpace the best players. For Toronto FC, the point at which the arc of this season might go awry is July. That's when the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament unfolds in the United States and as many as 10 TFC players might be called up for international duty for their countries, disappearing for weeks. Among them would be Altidore, Bradley, Ricketts, Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper, all vital if TFC is battling for a strong end to summer and a playoff spot is beckoning. The team needs to be in a strong position by Canada Day, or it will be desperation all over again.
Right now, there's a confidence surrounding the team and infecting the supporters, bewildered though some might be. The three-game trip that preceded Friday's home opener against Sporting Kansas City yielded two ties and one win. Not bad, but not brilliant. The heady moments from last season are still fresh in the mind, diminishing skepticism. The idea of professional soccer being played again in December in Toronto doesn't seem as ludicrous as it once was.
Promises were made last year, and kept. Everyone has seen what this team can do. The evidence is there. And if the team doesn't get close to the MLS Cup final this year it has no alibi, no wishy-washy excuses.