By NEIL DAVISON
The Canadian Press
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
TORONTO -- It speaks volumes about Toronto FC's smooth path this year that it made MLS history with a 69-point regular season while manoeuvring a changing of the guard in goal that barely made a headline.
Clint Irwin, the incumbent, was the Toronto goalkeeper during the penalty shootout loss to the Seattle Sounders in last December's MLS Cup. And he was still No. 1 after training camp this year. But Alex Bono's play eventually won the day.
When an injured Irwin had to leave Toronto's home opener on March 31, four games into the season, the door opened for Bono. The 23-year-old from Baldwinsville, N.Y., has played 29 of 32 games since, setting club records along the way and finishing tied for fourth in MLS goalkeeper of the year voting.
Bono, whose last name is pronounced a la Sonny Bono (Bow-no) rather than the rock star Bono, will be the last line of defence Tuesday when top-seeded Toronto opens the Eastern Conference final on the road against fifth-seeded Columbus.
The fact that Toronto has handled the change in goal so adeptly runs somewhat against franchise history.
Just ask Milos Kocic, Stefan Frei, Joe Bendik or Chris Konopka, who all could make a case for being hard done by here. Frei (Seattle) and Bendik (Orlando) are now important pieces for other MLS clubs.
But in a city that monitors Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen as if his goal crease was the intensive care unit, Bono's ascension to No. 1 has hardly caused a ripple.
For one reason, the easy-going Bono has made some eye-popping saves this season.
Coach Greg Vanney handled the situation diplomatically, talking up both Bono and Irwin while quietly handing the starting position to Bono. And the 28-year-old Irwin has been an exercise in grace in watching Bono take his job.
Irwin fought tooth and nail to become an MLS starter with Colorado and then Toronto. He came up the hard way, sharing a house in Ottawa with eight others and making $500 a month when he played for the now-defunct Capital City FC of the Canadian Soccer League.
This season he has been the ultimate team man.
"I'm fortunate to be here with two guys that are really good, two guys that are really professional and conduct themselves in the right manner on and off the field," Toronto goalkeeping coach Jon Conway said. "And you can see it in their relationship."
Veteran defender Drew Moor calls Irwin "a very good professional."
"He's a starting 'keeper on just about every other team in this league," he added. "But he and Bono have pushed each other extremely hard."
Taken sixth over all in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, Bono is a fine shot-stopper. He is also adept at reading the game and able to serve as a sweeper behind the back line.
He can be too adventurous at times in that regard, but his athleticism usually allows him to clean up any potential mess.
Bono has improved his physical conditioning, which has in turn strengthened the mental side of his game, according to Conway.
But with just 47 MLS games under his belt, Bono remains a talented work in progress.
Bono grew up just outside Syracuse, N.Y. His mother is a speech pathologist in Syracuse's inner city school district and his father general manager of a Mercedes-Benz dealer - a connection that allows Bono some fancy wheels.
As a youngster, his dream was to be a hockey goalie - he grew up with Vegas Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch.
"But that quickly went out the window when my mom looked at the price of goalie pads," he said.
Bono ended up a soccer goalie and had success at C.W. Baker High School. He stayed close to home for college, choosing Syracuse University for both its sports and academics.
"For me, I never planned on becoming a professional soccer player. It was about making sure I could set myself up to succeed the best that I could after school," said Bono, who is working toward completing his broadcast and digital journalism major.
The Syracuse soccer program was on the rise, and Bono helped it climb. He posted a 39-17-3 record in 59 starts from 2012 to 2014 and led the Orange to two NCAA tournament appearances.
In his second season, people began to take notice of him. Bono says he lost focus as a result of "the excitement of the possibility," thinking about the future rather than concentrating on the present.
He rediscovered the zone in his final year when he set school singleseason records for goals-against average (0.55), shutouts (12) and minutes played (1,949). He was named ACC defensive player of the year, a first-team NSCAA All-American and was one of three finalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy as the NCAA player of the year.
His play earned him a Generation Adidas contract and an invitation to the U.S. national team camp in January, 2015, the same month Toronto drafted him.
Konopka and Bendik split the first-team duties that year. Bono was assigned to Toronto FC 2, a humbling experience for a player who was used to starting for the first team. Bono calls it a "slice of humble pie." But it was also a chance to develop and learn on the job.
Toronto had drafted Bono as a future starter and patiently kept the faith.
The 2016 preseason did not go as Bono hoped. He ended up back at TFC 2 but, along with Quillan Roberts, got time backing up Irwin on the big team.
When Irwin went down with a quadricep strain on a routine goal kick in Orlando on June 25, 2016, Bono was the one on the bench and got his chance.
It was a rough baptism. Bono was caught perhaps biting off more than he could chew when he unsuccessfully went for a ball that was sent back into the box for a goal. And he was beaten by Kaka from the penalty spot deep in stoppage time in a 3-2 loss.
Bono would go on to start 15 games, but gave way to Irwin when he returned in late September.
"There were good times and there were rough times," he recalled.
"There were times when people were calling for my head. There were other times where it was smooth sailing."
Toronto expected Bono to win the job in 2017, but Irwin outplayed him. But then Irwin went down early in the season with a hamstring strain against Sporting Kansas City when his left foot jammed in the wet BMO Field turf.
Bono was waiting in the wings.
"It wasn't my first time around any more," he said.
"I was much better prepared for it this year when that happened," he added. "My goal was just to go in and play my game."
His 10 shutouts and 19 wins this season are club records, with the 19 wins in 2017 just one off the franchise career mark of 20 previously held by Frei. Bono now holds that record too, with a career mark of 277-11.
"He's been huge for us," Moor said.
"He's made some huge saves. He's confident, he communicates well.
[He's] everything you want in a good goalie."
TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono makes a save against the New York Red Bulls during the conference semi-final on Nov. 5.
FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS