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Toronto FC showing depth, character during record-breaking streak

Toronto FC has shown strength in depth and character during its six-game winning streak. (AP/Jay LaPrete)

Toronto FC won a club-record sixth straight game on Saturday, seeing off expansion franchise Minnesota United FC in a nervy 3-2 decision. The Reds are now one victory away from tying the modern-era MLS record for consecutive wins, set by Sporting Kansas City at the start of the 2012 season.

If Toronto beats the New York Red Bulls on Friday night, the mark will have been reached in just 29 days compared to SKC’s 39-game span. Not only is TFC on the brink of an era-defining achievement, the team has done it with a potent mix of grit, grind and genius. The scary part for their rivals is that Toronto is six points better off than anyone else in the league and yet looks like it still has a lot of room for improvement.

There are only two teams other than SKC to make it to six or more since the end of the shootout era, when games couldn’t end in a draw, New England in 2015 and D.C. United.  When United’s six-game winning streak ran out of steam on September 1, 2007, Toronto FC were still getting their Major League Soccer feet wet.

For most of the past decade, Toronto struggled to find an identity and the only records it made were for seasons finishing outside of the playoffs. But with MLS in fitter health than ever, last year’s beaten finalists are now arguably the strongest squad the league has ever seen.

In a remarkable 22-day stretch, including a West-Coast road trip, TFC has climbed to 25 points through 12 games. Before then, Toronto was on a three-game winless streak, a mini-crisis for a team with title aspirations. So how did they get here?

April 21: Toronto FC 3, Chicago Fire 1

After a slow start to the season by his incredible high standards, Sebastian Giovinco broke out against the revamped Fire.

In the 82nd minute, with TFC two goals to the good, the Italian pocket rocket went bar down from a free kick just outside the box, finding the top corner postage stamp beyond the reach of Chicago keeper Jorge Bav.

Giovinco’s dominant performance and subsequent hissy fit, when manager Greg Vanney substituted him before he could bag a hat trick, proved the Italian is capable of winning certain games all on his own. Unfortunately, a quad strain picked up in the first half against Minnesota has ruled him out for up to three weeks, a blow to the record-potential winning streak.

April 28: Toronto 2, Houston Dynamo 0

One week later, Giovinco’s partner in crime Jozy Altidore stole the show with a two-goal effort. The win at home to the Dynamo highlighted Toronto’s impressive passing and movement offensive.

May 3: Toronto FC 2, Orlando City FC 1

Toronto’s first midweek game of the campaign brought Kaka and Canadian star Cyle Larin to BMO Field. Two Giovinco goals to the good after 38 minutes, TFC looked to be cruising but a Kaka finish from close range just before the break shook things up.

Sitting deep for most of the second half, and backed up by some outstanding goalkeeping by youngster Alex Bono, Toronto weathered the southern storm and showed it can dig in when three points are on the line.

May 6: Seattle Sounds 0, Toronto FC 1

A West-Coast trip to Seattle was a chance to put demons to bed for Toronto, which dominated the men in green in December only to see the 2016 MLS Cup slip through its fingers in a penalty shootout after a scoreless tie in regulation.

As he did with the first kick of the heartbreaking shootout at BMO Field, Altidore made no mistake from the spot for the only goal of the game. Greg Vanney made a raft of changes for the road affair but his club’s performance didn’t suffer. If anything, TFC were so comfortable in victory against Seattle it’s hard to believe they couldn’t get the job done when silverware was on the line.

May 10: Columbus Crew 1, Toronto FC 2

Four days later, with the franchise record for consecutive victories up for grabs, Altidore missed a critical spot kick with TFC already a goal down.

However, Toronto fought back against Trillium Cup rivals Columbus, grabbing two late goals, all the points, and that shiny new record.

Just like the club’s playoff run last year, Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts was a game-changer, getting on the end of two crosses for his first goals of the season. Toronto’s depth has really started to show, with quality players such as Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio finding themselves spending time on the bench.

May 13: Toronto 3, Minnesota United FC 2

Coming at the end of such an intense stretch of games, this one wasn’t pretty. Played at a slower pace than usual and sprinkled with lackluster play, TFC captain Michael Bradley called it “a day where we just needed to find a way to win.”

Giovinco went off injured in the first half and was joined by defender Nick Hagglund in the second. Fellow centreback Jason Hernandez had to be pulled midway through the game due to illness. With the play interrupted, Toronto twice gave up the lead but showed fortitude to push on in the game’s latter stages and grab the winner off the head of Ricketts.

Cliché tells us that champions win when they don’t play well and while other contenders are dropping points, Toronto keeps on winning. It won’t last of course. MLS is too unpredictable a league for that. Road games are tough — facing New York at Red Bull Arena under Friday night lights will be a test of strength and nerve.

But Toronto has shown enough in the last three weeks to prove it’s more than capable of matching and bettering last year’s success. At this stage, the Reds are favourites for the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record.

The showdown with New York is the first of five games in 15 days, another test of the team’s depth and character. No rest for the wicked. No rest for record breakers.

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