There are a host of reasons for Toronto FC to become complacent, even if it is less than a year since they shot from laughingstock to one penalty kick from the Major League Soccer championship.
The vast resources of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment were cannily put to use by the TFC brain trust of president Bill Manning, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Greg Vanney to assemble for this season what Vanney recently called “the deepest team in the history of the league.” So deep that not even the loss of star striker Sebastian Giovinco (quadriceps strain) for up to three weeks and defender Nick Hagglund (torn medial collateral ligament) for three months slowed TFC’s winning streak, which could hit seven games on Friday night in New Jersey against the New York Red Bulls.
Last season, the Reds showed they are one of the elite teams in the league with their playoff run that ended with a loss on penalty kicks in the MLS Cup to the Seattle Sounders. Since the MLS season, which runs from March through December for a championship team, is a marathon rather than a sprint, the team could be excused for a lack of urgency in the early days.
Yet TFC is showing a rare hunger for wins and goes into Friday’s match with a 7-1-4 record and 25 points, first over all in the MLS by three points over Sporting Kansas City. What drives the team is a clear message from the top – losing a championship by a penalty kick means there is much unfinished business.
“I think the start in a lot of ways is just kind of a carry-over from last year,” veteran defender Jason Hernandez said. “The final half of the  season was very strong for this club. There is a sense we picked up where we left off.
“There is also the thought of some unfinished business. To get so close to a championship last year is bitter for a lot of people around here, as it should be. It’s a huge driving force week by week to make sure we put on a strong performance and leave everything on the field.”
Hernandez, 33, has a unique perspective on what drives TFC. He is in his first season with the Reds after playing the previous two for New York City FC. Hernandez said when you are on the outside looking in, it is easy to think TFC’s three designated players, stars Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Giovinco, dictate the team’s fortunes. But now that he’s on the inside, Hernandez said he sees there is far more to Toronto.
“You understand there are a lot of good players on this team, the system is strong, the tactics are strong,” he said. “I think that’s a huge reason for the success over the last two months.”
There is also Vanney’s wizardry with the roster. Vanney had to cope with the loss of defender Drew Moor, who is expected to return to action on Friday after being out since mid-April because of an irregular heartbeat. And then there’s the hectic schedule: the winning streak of six games came in 22 days and the New York game kicks off a stretch of five games in 15 days.
While the injuries and the schedule created playing opportunities for the reserves, keeping a group this deep in talent content with playing time is a challenge for any coach. But a healthy attitude, exemplified by striker Tosaint Ricketts, makes life easier. Ricketts, who has three goals in TFC’s past two games, including two game-winners, will start in place of Giovinco on Friday.
The Edmonton native’s usual role is to spell either Giovinco or Altidore. If he is frustrated by the lack of playing time, Ricketts keeps it to himself.
“I am happy to fill that role and do anything that will help the team,” Ricketts said. “If I keep pushing myself every day, I will push those designated players to perform better for our team as well, knowing there is some pressure from below.
“All in all, it makes for a better team environment and it makes for more quality on the pitch and a higher and competitive nature in training.”
It also helps when the highest-paid player on the team is in lockstep with the head coach on never being satisfied. The six consecutive wins makes TFC just the third MLS team since 2007 to have a streak that long, but Bradley said this is no time to savour any accomplishments.
“We shouldn’t be happy with winning a few games in April and May,” he said. “There’s more for us. Our mentality when we step on the playing field on the weekend is we haven’t done anything yet. Nobody passes out awards in May.
“We’ve really emphasized this idea that we are where we are because we have shown humility and shown the ability to always want more. The second that goes away, we’re going to be in big trouble. The challenge is to make sure that never goes away.”Report Typo/Error