By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 5, 2018) US Soccer Players – Toronto FC was going to be a dynasty. At least, Toronto FC had all the ingredients to start a dynasty after back-to-back Eastern Conference titles and an MLS Cup in 2017. Praise flowed in the direction of the owners MLSE, club president Bill Manning, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko as the one-time laughingstock established itself as the modern standard-bearer for success in MLS.
The sky was the limit, and why wouldn’t it be? After securing the club’s first two league trophies in the triple-trophy season of 2017, Toronto looked capable of achieving the type of legendary status reserved for the DC United teams of the teams and the David Beckham, Landon Donovan-led Galaxy teams of 2011 through 2014. The pieces were all in place. Top level talent in the form of three Designated Players, depth cobbled together through the savvy use of the MLS budget mechanisms, and rapid support that filled up BMO Field whenever asked. Only the results didn’t follow.
2018 has been a reality check for Toronto. As of the start of September, the club sits in 9th-place in the Eastern Conference. They’re nine points back of a playoff position. Only an incredible run through the final seven games and a collapse by more than one club in front of them will save their season. After last winter’s triumph, it looks like Toronto will be back watching someone else claim the MLS Cup trophy come December.
Everyone waited for Toronto to slide into gear. They would leverage the talent and depth that still exists in the roster and make a late-season push to the postseason. Everyone is still waiting.
Captain Michael Bradley spoke about the failure to back up last year’s historic season after a 4-2 home loss to LAFC on Saturday.
“For me, it’s very simple,” he said. “We had an incredible year last year, but, Champions League aside, this year we have not had enough people in this club, from the top all the way down to the bottom – everybody is included – who understood how hard it was going to be, what it was going to take to navigate through another season where we had to play every week like our lives depended on it.
“Last year that was the mentality; that was what we were able to do. But when you win everything like we did then you have to understand that to come back and do it again, it’s going to be even harder. And through 27 league games this year it’s not even been close. Not even close.”
Bradley would know better than anyone the difference between 2017 and 2018 when it comes to the team’s approach. He didn’t linger on the Champions League run and the resources it taxed in the process. Still, the continental tournament and Toronto’s focus on trying to break the MLS curse against Mexican competition set the season off-kilter from the very beginning. One of the club’s strengths, the celebrated depth, disappeared with a rash of debilitating injuries and the Reds never really recovered.
Despite looking like a perfectly tuned club during last year’s run, TFC has found it difficult to regain that form once players returned to the lineup midstream in 2018.
TFC is just one example of a club falling at the “dynasty” hurdle. With Major League Soccer changing so quickly from year-to-year, it would be folly to assume their experience is going to be typical moving forward. It does illustrate just how difficult building a season-to-season championship caliber team is in MLS, regardless of the ability of teams to flex financial muscle long undeveloped in America’s top division.
Is it still nearly impossible to spend your way to what American sports would term a “dynasty” and what European soccer might call “big club” status? At least for Toronto FC, the answer is “yes”.
The closest thing MLS has to dynasties are perennial playoff teams who at least give themselves a chance come the postseason tournament. The Seattle Sounders have just one championship between 2009 and 2017 but have outpaced the rest of the league by making the playoffs in every one of those seasons.
Two seasons behind Seattle list of active playoff streaks is Sporting Kansas City. Peter Vermes’s team has made the postseason every year since 2011, a run that also includes one MLS Cup title in 2013. While the playoff results haven’t been good in the years following the club’s championships with every season ending in a knockout round loss, only one team can rightfully claim to be more consistent.
Defender Matt Besler, midfielder Roger Espinoza, and midfielder-turned-fullback Graham Zusi make up the core of Sporting KC. Besler and Zusi joined Sporting in 2009 when the club was still known as the Wizards and have been on hand for every playoff run. Espinoza joined the team in 2008, spent two years playing in England, then returned for the 2015 season.
Sporting re-signed all three players to new contracts this week. The calculus is clear on the side of both the players and the club. For Sporting, keeping three figures synonymous with the club’s modern identity and success on the field makes sense with the lower salaries they’ll command in their thirties. All three are still contributing at a high level and replacing them would introduce uncertainty when it’s unnecessary to do so.
For Besler, Espinoza, and Zusi, the league’s restrictive free agency rules limit their options. Chasing a contract abroad likely doesn’t hold much appeal.
Age is most definitely a thing for the Sporting core. Besler and Espinoza are 31 and Zusi is 32. Barring injury they could play for a few more years at their current level, but the clock is ticking. Vermes responded to the issue of age at the announcement of the new multi-year contracts for each player, because there was no legitimate way to avoid the topic.
“We think all of them are in their prime,” he said. “We just feel they have a lot of years left to give.”
At least for a few more seasons, Sporting will retain the character that helped establish the playoff streak that will likely extend to eight years this season. Bringing back Besler, Espinoza, and Zusi is sticking with the status quo, but then, the status quo works.
More From Jason Davis:
- Philadelphia pushes up the Eastern Conference table
- Shuffling MLS rosters in August
- Making the most of MLS Rivalry Week
- Is the MLS Rookie of the Year award fair?
Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com