Record-makers Toronto FC know that 'winning the MLS Cup is everything'
For Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney, there's no avoiding the talk of how many records the Reds might set.
With 56 points from 27 matches, TFC may well record the most points and points per game in league history, surpassing the marks of the 1998 LA Galaxy (68 from 32) on both counts. The Reds are also in the hunt for most wins (16 so far compared to the 2014 Seattle Sounders mark of 20), fewest losses (three versus several teams with just four), and best goal differential (+29 versus the 1998 Galaxy total of +41). Toronto is flat-out running away from the field in the race for the Supporters' Shield, up nine points with seven games left to play.
So rather than fight the talk of history, Vanney acknowledges it, even while doing what he can to keep it at arm's length.
"We're quite aware of where we stand with all of that stuff," he said via telephone.
"It's not like we're oblivious, but we're also very much aware that we've got to try to win these games one at a time and see where that ultimately leads us.
"I'm more concerned with the process of getting better and being ready for the end of the year rather than all of that stuff, though we know it's there."
In the wake of last weekend's 3-1 hammering of Canadian rivals the Montreal Impact, that sounds like nitpicking. Toronto not only has incredible balance from front to back, but easily has the deepest roster in the league. When the likes of Victor Vazquez, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco are in the lineup, there are match-winners all over the field. Then you have under-the-radar players like Drew Moor, Justin Morrow, and Marky Delgado who have been outstanding as well. But Vanney insists there are flaws to be corrected. He even found a few last weekend.
"We were up 2-0 in this last game, and I thought we got just a little bit complacent, and a little casual, and we invited more pressure on ourselves and ended up giving up the next goal," he said.
"Again as you get towards the playoffs, and these home and aways, and every goal matters, that we've got to get ourselves prepared on being a little less casual or naive in some of these moments when we get leads."
Yet for now, the Reds go marching on towards MLS history, and invariably it's the '98 Galaxy to which Toronto is compared. Both Vanney and assistant Robin Fraser played on that freewheeling Galaxy side led by the likes of Cobi Jones and Welton. Vanney notes that the Galaxy back then lacked balance and struggled against more disciplined sides. In the playoffs a Bob Bradley-led Chicago Fire team knocked the Galaxy out the postseason, and thus confined that LA side to mere footnote status.
Perhaps a more apt comparison in terms of dominance is the 2011 edition of the Galaxy. That side amassed 67 points and was never really threatened on its way to winning a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double.
"I look at the season we had in 2011, and for me it was the most complete season from start to finish," said Todd Dunivant, who spent parts of two seasons in Toronto before winning titles in LA .
"We were in first place the entire year by a decent margin. We won our group in CONCACAF Champions League. Then we went through the playoffs in very surgical fashion. It's rare to have a season where from start to finish we were so consistent. That part for me is hard to beat.
"You look at it from our roster perspective, between Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Mike Magee, we had three MVPs on the team. You throw in David Beckham and Omar Gonzalez; those guys were Best XI that year. We had a roster that you look at it now and it was pretty incredible. For me that was the best team I ever played on."
Comparing teams from different eras is always difficult. In 1998, the league was in its infancy. In 2011, MLS teams were finally getting a handle on the designated player rule. Toronto looks to be the first juggernaut of the targeted allocated money era, as GM Tim Bezbatchenko has constructed a roster with no discernible weaknesses. Vanney readily admits that the additional $1.2 million cap space allows for teams to construct a very different type of roster.
"Just from top to bottom, man for man, it's probably just a better team just because there's more resources that the league has," he said in direct comparison to the '98 Galaxy.
"But just in terms of comparative for the era, I'd say this team is better balanced, tactically more astute. We can play different systems. We know how to defend in those systems; we know how to attack in those systems. We can beat you in a transition game; we can beat you if you want to sit back on us. We have a better feel for all of those nuances in the game."
But while such comparisons might make for interesting bar conversation, Toronto won't be remembered as the greatest MLS team in history unless it wins both the Shield and the Cup. It's perhaps telling that last year the Seattle Sounders felt like it got the proverbial monkey off its back by winning MLS Cup, even though it claimed the Supporters' Shield two years earlier.
"It's fun watching Toronto," said Dunivant, who is currently working as the director of soccer operations for NASL side the San Francisco Deltas.
"They're rightfully in the conversation now for best team. But you don't know until the complete story is written in 2017 for them. What they've done so far has been phenomenal.
"They're just smashing the competition right now, but you don't get remembered for what you do in August. You get remembered for what you do in November and December. I think everyone knows that it's an incredible accomplishment to win the Shield, but winning the MLS Cup is everything. If you don't do that, you've kind of left a lot on the table."
That assessment is one that Vanney doesn't dispute, although he stopped short of calling the season a failure should TFC not win MLS Cup. As FC Dallas showed last year, all it takes is one untimely injury to halt a march towards history. That said, Vanney knows winning MLS Cup would cement his team's place in MLS lore.
"MLS Cup requires some things to go well for you over the course of five matches, whatever it is, and you've got to make some real plays, and the margin for error is not very big, as we saw last year," he said.
"Some people would say a little bit of luck, but I would say some real execution in key moments. It wouldn't mean that we didn't have a successful year, but to reach our ultimate success, we have to win the Cup."
And make history in the process.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.