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TFC's real challenge lies within
Suspended stars Altidore and Giovinco's behaviour sheds light on the team's mentality, which can quickly turn poisonous

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Monday, November 20, 2017 – Page S2

TORONTO -- At the least, Toronto FC may have the cold-weather edge in the first leg of Major League Soccer's conference final beginning on Tuesday. At the 8 p.m. kickoff, it's expected to be miserable in Columbus, Ohio.

It wasn't much nicer up here on Sunday morning. Even during the temperate months, a bitter wind slices through Toronto's suburban training facility, which is wedged up beside an airfield.

Yet, team captain Michael Bradley came to his outdoor media availability in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, looking not the least discomfited for 15 minutes while everyone around him in parkas shivered.

But that's where any conceptual advantage ends. Toronto goes into the game missing its two most productive offensive players, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, through suspension.

It's a potential disaster of the team's own devising. Altidore was tossed for treating the first half of Toronto's previous playoff game like a scene from The Outsiders, going from opponent to opponent trying to kick off a brawl. Giovinco compounded the error by earning a second yellow card in two games and subsequent disqualification for dissent.

This is where everyone falls back on clichés about backs against walls, guys stepping up and gutcheck time.

Mercifully, Toronto skipped most of those on Sunday. By total regular-season points, TFC is the best team in the history of MLS. That's given it enough swagger to feel no need to apologize for minor errors.

A variety of scenarios were put to Bradley - can they still risk attack while undermanned? Will they defend and aim to break through in the second leg? What about a draw? Would that satisfy you?

"We can do that," Bradley said, not bothering to pick out any particular approach. "We've done that when we've needed that."

The idea seems to be TFC is slightly above tactics or planning.

The team is that good.

As such, this is an oddly pivotal moment in the club's history, one that has little to do with the relative qualities of the Columbus Crew and how to combat them.

The greatest threat to an evidently great team is not its opposition, but its self-belief. Doubt is the real enemy.

For more than two years, reaching back to an embarrassing playoff elimination in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Toronto has had no reason to feel any pangs of uncertainty. Even last year's loss in the MLS final didn't come off as a failure.

Toronto was the better team in that dreary contest, which was settled in the crapshoot of penalty shots. It was more bad luck than poor form.

"I thought we played like the team that wanted to win the championship," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said at the time, suggesting his team had won a moral victory, if not an actual one.

For two entire seasons then, it's been a downhill ride. Little things go wrong and are overcome without any fuss. Each new addition has been a fit.

We've never heard a whiff of a story about one star player hating another, which is the typical soap opera in this sport.

It's not supposed to be this simple in the pros (and almost assuredly, behind the scenes, is not), but TFC has become one of those blessed sports franchises that enjoys learning experiences rather than suffering disappointments.

That's wonderful, but it's also a precarious state of affairs. You only get so many mulligans on things you should have won, but didn't find a way to.

One day you're a comer, and the next you're the Buffalo Bills. The trick is pushing through.

TFC is in the midst of one of those moments.

Last year, it would've been lovely if it had won the title. It certainly wasn't expected. It was the "nomination" moment - the players were just happy to be considered in a group with so many talented peers.

Hand to God, they hadn't even written a speech. That's how surprised they were.

This year, it's different. We are past the "Hey, guess what? TFC isn't a basket case any more!" stage of things.

It doesn't have to win this one, but it sort of does.

You can see how this goes down if Toronto stumbles badly in Columbus.

All of a sudden, those suspensions look less like oversights and more like incredibly foolish, possibly selfish, errors of judgment. The stars get raked.

The coach gets raked even more (because the blame always falls heaviest on the coach, since he's the only person who can be fired).

People begin wondering about the "mentality" of the team. The goals are there.

So maybe the chemistry's off?

Maybe they need to rethink their approach?

That worst-case may not be in the team's mind - if professional athletes wasted emotional effort gaming out such possibilities, they would probably not be professional athletes - but it must be in the coach's.

Vanney has many talents. One of the most notable is that he looks like he knows what he's doing.

He's got that Clint Eastwood squint wherein his mouth can be telling you, "That's an interesting question," but his eyes are saying, "I'm going to find you in the parking lot later and kill you."

He looks like someone in charge of his team and himself. Never underestimate how important that is, since the thing players are most attuned to is fear.

Vanney was blasé on Sunday.

Like Bradley, he gave up a version of "We can pretty much do anything we want and feel like that'll work out." A win? Maybe. A draw.


The only crack in his demeanour was a rare joke. Someone asked about Plan B and Plan C.

"I hope we don't have to go to D, E and F in the first leg," Vanney said, and came very close to laughing. Not quite. But close.

Plan B should do for now. Plan B can probably win a team this talented a championship.

How the Reds do it has stopped mattering now. That they do it is all that does.

Associated Graphic

Toronto FC's Justin Morrow reacts after missing his shot during penalties in last year's MLS Cup final against Seattle. Last year, it would've been lovely if TFC had won the title. It certainly wasn't expected. This year, it's different.


Huh? How did I get here?
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