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Toronto FC remembers pain of MLS Cup loss as it looks ahead to new season

Toronto FC president Bill Manning, right, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko unveil the team's new shirt for the forthcoming season in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2017.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Despite a marketing push promising a new dawn for the Reds, Toronto FC is looking back as well as forward this season.

There was plenty of talk about unfinished business for the MLS Cup runners-up at a fan breakfast Friday featuring team president Bill Manning and GM Tim Bezbatchenko.

The 2017 season promo titled "Dawn of the Reds" follows an earlier teaser called "A New Dawn is Coming."

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The video, accompanied by a pounding drum soundtrack, starts with a young Toronto FC fan waking up at night and then looking out his window. What follows is a rapid-fire montage of flare-carrying fans in the streets, on-field highlights and celebrations in the stands.

"The burn of the past has fallen into ashes," the voice of a young boy says over several shots of disappointed players post-MLS Cup. "Unrealized dreams hang in the air. We'll finish what we started, as the streets turn red. We rise."

For Manning, the storyline is both about "unresolved business, unfinished business" and the team's drive for excellence over the next decade.

Toronto fell at the final hurdle last year, in a gut-wrenching penalty shootout loss on home turf after a 0-0 tie that saw the Seattle Sounders fail to put a shot on target for 120 minutes. Manning called it a "devastating loss."

"We felt we were better than Seattle last year," he said to applause. "I think the last three, four months – really from August on – we were the best team in Major League Soccer."

Still, the trophy case designated to house the MLS Cup at Toronto's training grounds remains empty.

Asked about whether Toronto was superior to Seattle, Bezbatchenko offered a different view than his boss.

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"It doesn't really matter," he told reporters. "At the end of the day it's about who wins, especially in the playoffs."

Toronto returns all 11 MLS Cup starters and has added Spanish attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez and French-born Congolese defender Chris Mavinga.

Vazquez will help unlock defences on teams like Montreal that like to sit back and then play on the counter-attack, said Bezbatchenko. Mavinga offers experience on the left side of the defence in coach Greg Vanney's preferred 3-5-2 formation.

"This team has special qualities," said Manning.

"And for us, and I've said this before, it's just the beginning," he added. "I think we don't want to just win an MLS championship – and I say that very humbly because it's very difficult to do that – but we want to be a team that can achieve championships year after year after year and have some longevity."

Eleven teams have won the MLS Cup in the league's 21-year history. The league's gold standard are D.C. United (1996, '97, '99 and 2004) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (2002, '05, '11, '12 and '14).

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"That's what we want to be," said Manning, citing the Galaxy.

Bezbatchenko agreed that unfinished business is a team's theme, saying TFC players – after a short six-week off-season – had come to camp unified and with a chip on their shoulder.

"I feel like in some ways something was taken from us ... Certainly the players are using that as motivation," he said. "But again we're not dwelling on it. It's a mantra but we need to be who we are every day, understand our identity and build on that ... We can do great things this year."

Still, given the parity in the league and potential player losses to international play, he said it will be a challenging year.

"You can't expect just because we got to the MLS Cup last year that we deserve anything," Bezbatchenko said. "We only deserve what we earn and that happens every game, week in and week out."

Toronto used the Real Sports Bar & Grill breakfast to unveil its primary 2017 jersey – red with dark grey sleeves. The team's away jersey– white with a red band with blue trim across the chest – is a holdover although the new uniform will be worn at about half of its road matches.

Toronto, which is still in training camp in Florida, opens the season March 4 at Real Salt Lake. The home opener is March 31 against Sporting Kansas City.

Manning says the team has sold more than 20,000 season tickets for the first time ever and could reach 21,000. The renewal rate is close to 93 per cent, compared to 80 per cent last season.

"We're just scratching the surface of what this franchise can do," Manning said.

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