“Everyone says you could never get 69 points again,” suggested Manning, relaying a discussion from the team dinner the night before. “We said, why not? Why would we aspire to anything less?”
Manning says the club believes there is plenty more to play for in 2018 despite winning all the trophies before them last season and setting records along the way.
“When it’s all said and done, we’ll have a better roster than a year ago, be a better team,” continued Manning. “You have to go out and execute, but there is so much out there for us to play for. D.C. United, in the early years, went to four MLS Cups in a row. Those are the things we’re putting as a motivation.”
While that may sound like of pressure coming from the club administration, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko welcomes it.
“You set out each year to build a roster that is competitive, a consistent contender,” said Bezbatchenko. “We’ve found players that give us flexibility; allows Greg [Vanney] to adapt in any game situation, which is one of our competitive advantages.
“The game is evolving. Instead of being formation-based, the top teams show the ability to adapt in game and across the season,” continued Bezbatchenko. “That’s one of the features that has made us successful over the last two years.”
Days away from the start of the campaign, which gets underway next Tuesday against the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League tie (8 pm ET), Toronto have already added five players – Gregory van der Wiel, Auro, Ayo Akinola, Liam Fraser, and Caleb Patterson-Sewell.
One or two more are expected in the coming days and weeks; the side is heavily linked to midfielder Ager Aketxe, whose contract was terminated by Athletic Bilbao on Friday, potentially freeing up a move to MLS. Bezbatchenko would not comment on the rumor, saying only that they were still looking at a couple targets and had a few options under consideration.
Patterson-Sewell looks to be the third keeper, backing up Alex Bono and Clint Irwin, while Akinola and Fraser were signings with an eye to the future. But van der Wiel and Auro both arrive with impressive pedigrees.
“Greg is a consummate professional, a lot of experience in big games; he won’t be fazed by any moment,” said Eriq Zavaleta of his new teammate. “[Adds] something a little different; another element, and like us, just wants to win. We’re excited to get him out there.”
Zavaleta called van der Wiel “very dynamic going forward” and thinks he will be “someone that teams will have to account for” alongside Toronto’s numerous other threats.
Of Auro, though only 22, Drew Moor suggested, “He’s born and bred to play soccer. Sao Paulo is a huge club.”
“All the new guys have been great,” said Moor. “As long they’re here here to succeed, walk in every day and lay it all on the line, they’re going to fit right in. Those guys certainly do.”
Famously, TFC had specific goals envisaged for 2017, etched onto the walls of their training ground and locker room.
For now, such aims this year remain a secret, though the intention is clear.
“Continuing to play at an extremely high level,” stressed Manning. “We don’t want to go backwards.
“I point to the LA Galaxy. From 2009 to 2014, they hit four MLS Cups; won the Supporters’ Shield two years in a row. How do we become that type of franchise? We’ve now gone to two MLS Cups in a row, established ourselves as one of the preeminent teams in the league, but how do you do it for half a decade? No one has ever done it for a decade. Those are the things we look at, aspire to.”
Said Bezbatchenko: “We want to keep our identity as one of the best defensive teams. Be a team that is exciting and plays good football, that can both counter when needed, but also a team that controls the game. We want the game to be played on our terms. Those are characteristics that have made us successful; we’ll continue to do that.”
The players have received those messages.
“Let’s do more of the same,” said Zavaleta. “We want to continue to push the envelope.”
Zavaleta also noted a couple benchmarks TFC didn’t hit last season.
“With how successful we were last year, nobody is satisfied. Can we push for 70 points? To win the Champions League, be the first? New goals are set every year, new milestones for us to touch,” Zavaleta said. “We feel everything is attainable. Get better, be better than we were. [However], it means nothing until you go out and prove it.”