Despite Champions League loss, Toronto FC's reputation keeps growing
TFC falls agonizingly short in final
There is no hiding place in professional sport. Nor should there be. If your day job is to entertain the public, criticism comes with the territory and judgment follows every performance.
The record books will show that Toronto FC came up short against Chivas of Guadalajara. Agonizingly short, but short nonetheless, losing 4-2 on penalties (3-3 on aggregate). They will also show – for the 10 straight year, under the current CONCACAF Champions League format – that a Mexican club has emerged as Champions.
I recently ran into TFC President Bill Manning at a fundraiser. My immediate thought was to congratulate him on TFC's run in the competition. I only got halfway through the sentence before he stopped me. "Don't congratulate us yet," he said, "There's still one more series to play".
Wise words from a man who has presided over the most successful era in the club's history.
And yet, despite this success, here's the problem: reputations cannot be bought or manufactured. They can only be earned over an extended period of time. There's only one way to build them — turn up week in, week out, season after season, and deliver a competitive performance.
No team is going to win every game, but successful teams are always hard to beat. As we witnessed in Guadalajara, Toronto FC is becoming one of those teams. The record is beginning to speak for itself and the club's reputation continues to grow.
Back-to-back MLS Cup appearances have established TFC as one of the strongest franchises in Major League Soccer, and, by a margin, the best Canada has to offer.
Winning the Supporters' Shield was proof positive of its stability, and delivering the MLS Cup demonstrated strength of character in the capricious format of knock out soccer.
Right of passage
And now, Toronto FC has taken those new-found skills and transferred them to the international stage. The effort and commitment required to beat both Tigres UANL and Club America (to reach the final) should not be underestimated. Tigres were Champions League runners-up in the previous two seasons, while America remains the most decorated club in the competition's history.
We should also recognize the rarity of the occasion. Mexican sides have won every edition of the tournament in its present format, and only two other clubs have dared challenge that dominance. The Montreal Impact made it all the way to the final in 2015, a feat first achieved by Real Salt Lake in 2011. Both departed, as have TFC, as runners-up.
In other words, making it to the final is a statement in itself; unfortunately, it's not enough. The Mexicans have turned this competition into a domestic right of passage. Bigger budgets, hostile fans, and a century of soccer culture have all contributed to their supremacy.
Chivas and America are perhaps the two biggest Mexican dynasties. Decades of success and glittering trophy rooms leave a legacy most other clubs can only dream of. Success begets success—more fans, richer TV contracts, and wealthier corporate partners.
Unfortunately, MLS doesn't want dynasties. It wants all of its franchises to be able to sell the dream of success. If supporters buy into the remote possibility that this could be "our year", season seat sales remain steady and the League's salary cap policy ensures operating costs cannot spiral out of control.
A global view
The business model may work, but it is also restrictive by design. Every serious soccer league in the world has its leading lights. Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and Bayern Munich spring to mind. Would it be so bad, so financially irresponsible, so unfair if Major League Soccer allowed its club owners to build their businesses into respected, global brands?
Perception and expectation go hand in hand. Toronto FC has essentially reinvented itself over the last three years and the perennial MLS strugglers have taken the necessary measures to build a strong foundation. The bar has been raised dramatically and the club must continue to build on that in the years ahead
Toronto FC moves on – its reputation enhanced – despite losing the CONCACAF final and the chance to represent the region at the FIFA Club World Cup.
The team, like many before it, returns from Mexico defeated and deflated, but ultimately stronger for the experience. Lessons will have been learned, mental notes stored away by players and coaches for the next time.
And there has to be a next time, and many more thereafter. For that is how reputations are built, through consistency of performance, not over two games, but over two years or two decades.
Toronto FC is barely ten years old – a baby by global standards. Its time will come.