Start and finish could be one in the same for Toronto FC in 2018

For a brief moment last season, Toronto FC wasn’t the best team in Major League Soccer. By the lofty standards the team set for the rest of the season, TFC struggled out of the gate, winning just one match in their first six.

It ultimately didn’t matter, after finding their bearings in those first six matches, Toronto would win six straight en route to a record-breaking season. They added the league’s first ever domestic treble, and now few remember that shaky start.

This year, however, things are a bit different. Toronto FC’s season could be defined just as much by how well they start as how they finish. TFC have made it no secret this year that they want to go deep in the CONCACAF Champions League. They will play up to four times in the CCL in their first six matches of 2018.

If Toronto FC wants to prove themselves in the continental competition, they will have to hit the ground running. Last year wasn’t an exception to the rule, the club has taken time to get up to their usual standards each of the past three seasons.

In 2015, TFC won only four times in their first 10 matches, in 2016 they didn’t pick up their fifth win until game 14. It bears mention that they started both of those seasons with extended road trips due to renovations at BMO Field.

But the fact remains that this group has never really found its stride until late April. By that point, the CONCACAF Champions League will be wrapping up.

In particular, it takes the offence a little while to warm up. Toronto FC was the best offensive team in the league last season, averaging 2.18 goals per game. However, through the first six games, they averaged barely over a goal and were shut out twice. They were only shut out once after that.

They also had issues holding leads at the start of last season, a sign of a lack of overall sharpness. In the first six matches of the season, Toronto FC blew three leads and only stayed in front once. They certainly didn’t look like the mentally unflappable side that played the rest of the season.

This is one of the big reasons that a Major League Soccer team has never won the CONCACAF Champions League. The competition comes at a time when clubs are just starting their seasons and have not yet reached first gear. Liga MX teams, meanwhile, are already in season.

The CCL comes as a mentality switch. Usually, MLS clubs are preparing themselves in the spring to peak from October to December.

The other main reason MLS teams have never won the continental competition are squad depth due to the league’s salary cap. Whereas MLS clubs may be able to match the starting lineup of Mexican league teams, they often cannot compete with the quality Liga MX clubs bring off the bench.

This depth issue bleeds over into balancing the regular season and Champions League. Often clubs have had to pick one or the other. The Montreal Impact did not win a game during their 2015 run to the CCL final. When Toronto FC made their best ever run to the CCL semis in 2011 they went 0-9 in MLS play.

However, in part thanks to new roster rules that allow teams to spend more on players, Toronto FC has the deepest squad the league has ever seen. It is a group more than capable of maintaining success in MLS play while prioritizing Champions League play.

The club has also taken measures to make sure they are ready to be competitive from day 1 in 2018. An expanded preseason schedule currently sees the team in Mexico taking on some of the country’s top clubs to prepare for the climate and type of soccer they will have to overcome should they advance in the CCL.

Preseason results are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but Toronto FC has been doing quite well in these matches. More importantly, perhaps, both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have been scoring for fun, a sign that the club could be a scoring threat right away in 2018.

Toronto also opens its Champions League campaign on February 20 with a two-legged quarterfinal matchup against the Colorado Rapids. Playing a team who are also just starting their season could help Toronto ease into the competition before facing Mexican opposition in the semis. The Rapids were also one of the worst clubs in the league last season.

So while Toronto will have to buck their recent trend of starting slowly in order to make a run in Champions League, they have all the tools in place to make sure that happens. If they can do this they have every chance of being the first MLS club to win the CCL and cement their status as the greatest team the league has ever seen.

Mitchell Tierney
mitchelltierney@hotmail.com

Digital Content Manager - Homestand Sports