After a breakthrough in 2016, Toronto FC looks to build perennial success
There's no crueler way to lose a final than on penalty kicks, at home, to a team you didn't allow a shot on goal during 120 minutes. The two months that have passed since Toronto FC watched the Seattle Sounders steal MLS Cup at frigid BMO Field in December haven't changed that fact for TFC coach Greg Vanney.
Yet Vanney has a simple reminder for his players as the Reds enter the final stages of preparations for a 2017 season in which they'll be among the title favorites: last year is long gone.
"You can't make up for losing the final last year just by winning it this year," Vanney told ESPN FC on Tuesday in a phone interview from Florida, where Toronto FC will play exhibitions against three MLS teams before opening the new campaign at Real Salt Lake on March 4.
"There's an entire season in front of us. I would've never bet in a million years that Columbus wasn't going to make the playoffs last year. They didn't get off to a great start and they never caught up after being a well-oiled machine the year before. So that's kind of my message to these guys. Yes, we want to win a championship but you can't win a championship in March and April. It's about getting better every day."
It makes sense that Vanney would want to use the Crew's failure to reach the postseason less than a year after dropping the 2015 MLS Cup to Portland as a warning -- the Timbers also missed the playoffs after winning it all. The domestic league's level of parity has a way of punishing harshly even the slightest hint of complacency. Talented teams fall short every year.
But the truth is that Toronto FC will start this season in the best place it's been since entering MLS a decade ago.
TFC's history has been marked by constant personnel changes, both on the playing roster and in the front office. Vanney, who took over toward the end of 2014, is already Toronto's longest-tenured coach. Even last year the club added three defensive starters in full-back Steven Beitashour, central defender Drew Moor and goalkeeper Clint Irwin -- this after high-priced attackers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco arrived in early 2015.
"Not having a lot of turnover is important," Vanney said. "Going into that first offseason after I came onboard as coach, our first priority was to go out and find designated players that we wouldn't have to change for four, five years. That meant guys in their prime who were hungry and complemented each other. That was the first step.
"The second step," Vanney continued, "was getting defensive guys who know the league. We built this team in a way that we've tried to minimize the amount of turnover year in and year out."
Still, there's always some. Rugged midfielder Will Johnson left for Orlando City as a free agent. Versatile French-Congolese defender Chris Mavinga, 25, was brought in from Rubin Kazan. One or two other moves could be on the way.
"We haven't made a whole lot of changes, but when it's all said and done we'll make a couple of important ones," Vanney said. "But we're not starting over. We're building off of things we've learned from previous years."
That includes everything from chemistry in the locker room to understanding what the coaching staff wants to the relationships that have developed on the field.
"They push each other," Vanney said, noting the continued influence of captain Michael Bradley. "Michael is a guy who is never satisfied, so he is always pushing the group.
"Plus we still have plenty of things to accomplish," he added. "I think we're just scratching the surface of some things that we're capable of doing."
Ambition has never been TFC's problem, of course. From the start, the Reds had the potential to be one of MLS's marquee clubs. They finally established themselves as such last year, but that also means that any step backward would be a colossal disappointment.
"Teams are going to be gunning for us," defender Justin Morrow told ESPN FC last month. "We're going to have to be strong throughout the season."
But while Vanney is wary of what happened to Columbus and Portland last year, he also remains confident that his side will avoid a similar fate.
"Part of the way we fight complacency is we lost in the final -- that's a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "We didn't achieve the things that we set out to. As a staff, we try to find ways to constantly challenge the group. And I think a big part of that is also the character of the guys that we've brought in. There's a saying that good teams can win, but the teams with great character are the ones that win year in and year out."
This season will tell us which category Toronto FC falls into.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.