Damien Cox: Toronto FC’s crowning glory to a record season
What we know for sure is that this soccer squad somehow— despite all it had accomplished over the past eight months— still managed to save the best for last, writes Damien Cox.
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First came 66 minutes of frustration and the reliving of old, painful memories. It couldn’t happen the same way again, could it?
Then, relief. A goal. A ball moved from a Spaniard to an Italian and then to an American. A left foot did the final damage, driving the ball one way while the seemingly unbeatable goalie dove the other way.
No, it wasn’t going to happen again. At least not the same way.
Finally, 27 minutes later, utter elation. History was not going to repeat itself at all. Instead, it was fireworks and confetti and players hugging one another on their home field.
And so, 16 days before Christmas, a gorgeous soccer championship was delivered to the city of Toronto. On a frigid day barely suitable for the beautiful game, the youngest pro team in town, Toronto FC, came through with a title just two weeks after the GTA’s oldest team, the Toronto Argonauts, delivered a surprise Grey Cup win.
Suddenly, a city not so long ago mocked for the ineptitude of all its teams is basking in back-to-back championships. Sweet.
But it’s important to realize Toronto FC really delivered something spectacular here, folks.
Was it the greatest season ever by a Toronto sports team? Maybe.
Is this the best team in the 21-year history of Major League Soccer? Quite possibly.
What we know for sure is that this record-setting soccer squad somehow, despite all it had accomplished over the past eight months, still managed to save the best for last.
They didn’t just erase the heartbreaking memories of one year ago when, on the same pitch, the same Seattle Sounders squad didn’t get a single shot on the Toronto goal in 120 minutes of competition, but won the MLS Cup anyways on dispiriting penalty kicks.
TFC made history in resounding fashion, with an utterly dominant and convincing 2-0 victory, a triumph for aggressive, positive soccer over a team that came to town planning to stall and sleepwalk its way to a second straight MLS title.
But TFC was determined not to be rope-a-doped again. They attacked early, won all the balls there were to win, created chance after chance while suffocating Seattle’s supposedly improved attack.
“We didn’t give them anything. Anything!” said a jubilant Victor Vazquez, arguably the missing piece that turned a finalist last December into a champion 12 months later.
After star striker Jozy Altidore had given Toronto a 1-0 in the 67th minute, Vazquez added another in the 94th, and then, only then, could TFC head coach Greg Vanney relax.
Then came the flood of emotions. Vanney, who turned this team from a perennial loser into a winner, lost his mother earlier this year, and it was after Vazquez’s goal that he looked to the sky and gave her a loving nod.
“She was a kindergarten teacher, and maybe that’s where I got my patience,” he smiled afterwards. “Like most moms, she was my No. 1 fan.”
Captain Michael Bradley — “his bald head was everywhere out there!” quipped Altidore — spoke eloquently of the process of going from crushing disappointment last year to triumph.
“Lifting this trophy has been an obsession for the last 365 days,” said Bradley, who arrived for the post-match media conference soaked head-to-toe in champagne. “It’s really hard to describe what it’s been like to live that every day.”
It was Toronto’s first soccer championship since the NASL Toronto Metros-Croatia won the 1976 Soccer Bowl, ironically at the Kingdome in Seattle. But that was another universe, another time entirely for the sport in North America.
MLS is a rapidly expanding, increasingly successful league, not teetering on the edge of extinction as so many attempts at professional soccer leagues on this continent have before. Toronto FC joined MLS 11 seasons ago, David Beckham came and went in Los Angeles with the Galaxy, and now the 22-team league will add a second L.A. team next year, and then expand by two more teams for the 2020 season.
For TFC, it’s been a bumpy ride. A horrible 2012 season was rock bottom, the so-called “Bloody Big Deal” in 2014 turned out to be a bloody disappointment and even legendary German star Jurgen Klinsmann couldn’t make sense of the operation.
But Bradley and Vanney came three years ago, stars like Altidore, Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco followed in rapid succession and the MLSE-owned squad rose to the top, setting a league record with 69 points this season.
“Nobody has accomplished what this team has accomplished,” said Vanney. “I think we’ve had the greatest season in the history of the league.”
On a grey, overcast day, more than 30,000 fans packed into BMO Field wearing toques, mittens and snowsuits to cheer on a club that has created an extraordinary level of passion among its supporters in a city long derided for sports crowds more likely to sit on their hands then get up and cheer.
“They give you the feeling that there is only one possible outcome,” said Bradley. “That we win.”
Just before the national anthems, the fans in the south end of the stadium unfurled two enormous banners. One read “LAST YEAR WE SAID YOU MADE US BELIEVE,” and the second read “THIS YEAR FULFILL ALL OF OUR DREAMS.”
“They’ve been the driving force behind all of this before we ever came,” said Altidore, admiringly.
Vanney made the tactical decision to go with a “diamond” formation in the midfield against the Sounders, both to defuse Seattle’s creativity in the middle of the field and to link Vazquez more closely to the team’s scoring stars, Giovinco and Altidore.
Only Seattle goalie Stefan Frei, who once tended goal for Toronto FC, looked like he could stop Altidore and Co. again this year as TFC attacked in waves. Frei made save after save until Altidore burst down the middle of the field to take a pass from Giovinco and bury the first goal of the game, the only goal his team would need.
“It’s my job,” said Altidore. “I’m the striker.”
TFC surely saved the best for last. It’s getting to be a habit in this town.
Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. Follow him @DamoSpin. His column appears twice weekly.