Toronto can overcome burdens that come with winning MLS' elusive double
The winners of the Supporters' Shield carry with them an odd kind of burden as they enter the MLS Cup playoffs.
On the one hand, every team in MLS would love to have the best record over the course of the regular season. After all, it's a sign of sustained excellence. But that trophy carries with it some other things that aren't as pleasant. There is pressure, there are expectations and the responsibility of living up to the form shown during the previous eight months. A deep playoff run might be sufficient for some teams to call the season a success. Not so for the regular season champion. You've come this far, now only winning the MLS Cup will be enough to finish the campaign with any kind of satisfaction.
For Toronto FC, those expectations have taken on extra significance. TFC aren't just any Supporters' Shield winners. They achieved a record haul of 69 points over the course of the campaign. There has been talk -- much of it deserved, quite frankly -- that this is the best MLS team of all time.
So TFC are walking a tightrope of sorts. The end goal is in sight, but one misstep is all it takes to fall into the playoff abyss.
"When you go through the regular season setting all sorts of records, and people telling you how great you are, and how this is a team of historical significance in MLS, then it only paints one picture, and that picture is you have to win MLS Cup, or else whatever you have done will be considered a failure," said ESPN television analyst Alejandro Moreno. "When you have that as the only barometer for success, winning MLS Cup, then it does present a different challenge, and it does present a different reality than for most other teams."
Moreno certainly has plenty of experience in that regard. He played on four Shield-winning teams: the 2002 LA Galaxy, the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes and the 2008 and 2009 Columbus Crew. The Galaxy and the '08 Crew managed to finish the job. The Quakes and the '09 edition of Columbus fell short.
A trip into the way-back machine is revealing. Moreno recalls that in 2008, little was expected of that Crew team, despite having a dominant playmaker in league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and plenty of regular season success. So while winning the Shield can dull a team's edge, Columbus' game was sharpened thanks to everyone else's low expectations.
"That group was, for lack of a better term, a bunch of misfits that found a home in Columbus and played very well together," said Moreno. "When you have that mix, and you have the added motivation to prove ourselves right, and prove everybody else wrong, that can be a powerful motivator."
Alas, Columbus couldn't repeat the feat the following season, despite once again claiming the Shield. It was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by eventual champions Real Salt Lake.
"The magic wasn't quite there," said Moreno. "It wasn't the same feeling within the locker room, and as a player you sense it. You hope it doesn't show itself up on the field, but you sense that there is something not quite right with the team, even though we proved we were good enough to be the best team over the course of a long season. I think a lot of it has to do with what the team is like going into the playoffs, how they feel about themselves and what the sense is of the team when you are in a position where in our case you were defending the title. That in itself creates a little bit of a complication."
Moreno recalls that the '05 Quakes fell victim to the classic blunder of thinking too much about the title, and not enough about the present, in that case a conference semifinal series against what looked to be a wounded rival in the LA Galaxy. Instead of being content to take a 2-1 defeat back to San Jose for the second leg, the Quakes pushed forward and were punished with a counterattacking goal from Landon Donovan. The two-goal deficit proved to be too big a hill to climb.
"You cannot get ahead of yourself," said Moreno. "You cannot be thinking about MLS Cup and not be worrying about conference semifinals or the conference final. You have to play the team that's in front of you."
The Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double was a rather routine occurrence in the league's infancy. Four times in the league's first seven years, that particular double was achieved. But after the Galaxy's triumph in 2002, the Shield/Cup double became much more difficult, and infrequent. Only the '08 Crew and 2011 Galaxy have managed it since. The league has grown bigger of course, but it was in 2003 that MLS junked the three-game "first to five points" format for series over two legs. That leveled the playing field for the lower-seeded team significantly, and upsets abounded as a result.
Yet Toronto seems set to bulldoze its way past any such concerns. TFC put in a professional shift in claiming a 2-1 first-leg victory away against the New York Red Bulls. There seems to be a sharpness and efficiency to their game. And the painful residue from last year's MLS Cup final defeat to the Seattle Sounders can still provide an additional source of motivation.
Is an upset possible? Without question. There is the luck component in which red cards and missed calls play a part. Injuries do as well, something Toronto is already dealing with to a degree, with Drew Moor and Victor Vazquez struggling to get fit for the second leg.
You also have TFC's old nemesis Seattle looming out in the West. In the East, Columbus, galvanized by the talk that owner Anthony Precourt may move the team to Austin, Texas, may spring a surprise, although it must finish off New York City FC first.
"Maybe that will be enough, that emotional component, to take Columbus to a different level needed to beat Toronto," said Moreno. "But you're reaching, you're not making solid arguments. I just think they're the best team in the league, and there's no real argument against it. So at their best, they'll run away with it. If you want to go and find reasons why Toronto wouldn't win, those reasons are difficult to find."
So have Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double winners in recent years. But at this point, Toronto is looking the part.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.