Toronto FC mainstay Ashtone Morgan Rlishes MLS Cup Berth After Slogging Through Club’s Darkest Seasons
Few MLSers have experienced more pain, anguish and defeat than Ashtone Morgan.
Toronto’s homegrown defender has outlasted five coaches and captains while playing alongside 10 different Designated Players since debuting for TFC in 2010.
Heck, the guy has been around longer than his own club’s training ground.
At the midway point of his professional career, Morgan has experienced so much bad with Toronto FC that he can reflect back further than anyone, to a time and place or moment when the Reds hit rock bottom as an organization — a time when they were mocked and minimized almost to the point of extinction.
“It got to a point where it was harder to play at home than away,” Morgan said three days before the Reds meet the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup.
He reflected back on seasons (2011, ’12 and ’13) few of his current teammates can even contemplate — a time when TFC supporters chanted “Let’s go Blue Jays” and made a mockery of the team.
But who could blame them? The Reds followed up a six-win 2011 season with a simply putrid start to 2012, when, under the guidance of head coach Aron Winter, they lost an MLS record nine straight games to start the season, prompting Danny Koevermans to refer to TFC as “the worst team in the world.”
Morgan described it as “walking on eggshells” at the time. The Reds weren’t just bad four seasons ago, they internalized it. The culture of losing was epidemic inside a dressing room that Morgan likened to a “graveyard.”
In the stands, meanwhile, the few fans who remained could only be described as mourners. A mid-September 2012 loss to the Chicago Fire drew a paltry 14,623 attendance — enough fans to fill up just the east stands at today’s expanded BMO.
“Those years were tough for us,” Morgan said. “We weren’t winning on the pitch. At the end of the day, we needed to win. We weren’t getting results. From us being frustrated to the fans being frustrated to the city being frustrated, it was a tough time. It was a really tough time.”
Jonathan Osorio, TFC’s most-capped player, joined the Reds in 2013. They didn’t have enough competitors back then, Osorio said. Players were satisfied with mediocrity. Many were just collecting a paycheque, it seemed.
“Back then I was going into a locker room where guys were just content to be at TFC,” Osorio said. “They were content to live in the city and play professionally.”
Perhaps that’s why just four players remain from the 2013 Reds, who finished with just 29 points and a minus-17 goal difference.
Lucky enough to avoid the Winter years, Osorio referred to 2014 as the low point of his four-season tenure.
Expectations had risen to new extremes with the additions of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. The Reds at one point even found themselves in the driver’s seat to finally earn their foray into the postseason.
But another coaching change, Defoe’s desertion and a five-game winless run to end 2014 saw TFC once again completely unravel. It didn’t matter that they had fared better, or that they were trending in a positive direction; the Reds were — once again — the Reds, the city’s punching bag.
“We should have made the playoffs,” Osorio recalled. “We had the team to make it that year. But with everything that happened, (it) went down as a failure.”
And, perhaps, the start of this club’s turning point.
Both Osorio and Morgan have seen TFC at the very bottom. They’ve both seen it briefly rise before crashing. Yet, the two Canadian players with the most TFC seniority both point to last season as the moment when they sensed something was changing under the direction of coach Greg Vanney.
Morgan recalls a moment last June when Toronto FC was in DC, looking to extend their winning streak to three. Upon finding themselves down after six minutes, the Reds scored on both sides of halftime to escape RFK Stadium with three points. In that moment, things felt different.
“Everybody was working for each other,” Morgan said. “The spirit was high. The fight was there. We came away with three points. That was one of our better games last year, and when we realized we have a deep squad and we can get this job done if we keep to that mindset.”
Adding Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore didn’t hurt matters, Osorio added. For the first time, however, Osorio described him and his teammates as having a “mindset” that was instilled in each and every player — a plan in place under Vanney and the club’s current staffers.
“Regardless of whether we win on Saturday or not, this franchise is going to be a contender for championships for a while,” Vanney said. “A big part of that is just changing the culture.
“We had to create a plan players could believe in, and take the right steps to add the right people who know what it means to win and have the right personality to drive others around them. Along the way, we’ve had experiences that weren’t always positive.”
Like last year’s playoffs, which seem decades in the past following last week’s momentous Eastern Conference final. That 3-0 loss in Montreal late last year no longer matters.
But if last October feels so far removed, one can only imagine the encyclopedia of memories in Morgan has repressed. He has been waiting almost a decade for the overwhelming support TFC has received down the stretch this season.
“The fans have been coming back,” Morgan said. “They’ve been phenomenal, especially the last two years. It has been great.”