TORONTO — If this season’s vintage of Toronto FC was going to stake its claim as the best team in Major League Soccer’s 22-year history, then it was going to have to fight to the very end to earn the designation. Saturday's MLS Cup final was no coronation. It was a grind, a test, a climb to the summit of Mt. Frei that had been a year in the making.
Winners of the 2017 MLS Supporters' Shield and the Canadian Championship (Canada’s domestic Cup competition), TFC stood on the threshold of a historic treble and the club’s first league title. In the way, for the second straight season, were the Seattle Sounders and Frei, the masterful Swiss-American goalkeeper who once wore TFC’s colors. He got the best of the Reds last time around. This year, if Toronto wanted to make history, it had to conquer its past.
And the hosts did, at long last. Toronto FC won the MLS Cup title on Saturday, 2-0, before 30,0584 fans at sold-out BMO Field. The stadium on the shore of Lake Ontario shook when Jozy Altidore finally ended TFC’s agony and beat Frei on a 67th-minute breakaway. Frei had made save after save across the two championship games, but TFC finally broke through, taking that one last, elusive step to American/Canadian soccer’s pinnacle. It was a deserved, hard-earned triumph.
Here are three thoughts on Saturday’s final:
Altidore writes a new ending
Frei’s impossible, leaping save during overtime of last season’s final is regarded by many as the best in league history. It’s become a part of Seattle sports lore. Now, Altidore’s winning goal will have similar status in Toronto.
His participation in Saturday’s final wasn’t even guaranteed. But the ankle injury that forced his removal from the Eastern Conference decider against Columbus proved to be the furthest thing from a bad omen. Altidore scored the series-winner shortly after getting hurt, and he promised during the MLS Cup build-up that nothing would keep him from playing this weekend.
Altidore started against Seattle and was effective as part of a dynamic, dizzying TFC build-up that kept the visitors on their heels and created numerous gilt-edged scoring chances. But Frei stood firm.
Finally, in the 67th, Altidore presented a different sort of target. Rather than playing as a hold-up man or connector, he was at the tip of the spear, racing onto a through ball from Sebastian Giovinco like a player with the freshest ankles on the field. He took a touch to his left to create distance from Seattle’s Joevin Jones, then lifted the ball over Frei as the goalie rushed forward. There was no way TFC’s nemesis was reaching that one.
Altidore’s playoff could’ve been remembered far differently. He was suspended for the first leg of the conference finals after getting involved in a post-game fracas against the New York Red Bulls. And he sat on the sidelines for several minutes against the Crew after turning his ankle, contemplating an early exit. Since then, the story—and TFC’s history—has been different.
Toronto is dominant
Credit to Toronto coach Greg Vanney for putting a tactical twist on the final that bedeviled the Sounders (17-10-12), who’d been enjoying a dominant postseason run of their own. Rather than their customary 3-5-2, the Reds took the field in a 4-4-2 that tore Seattle apart.
The key: it allowed TFC’s outside backs, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, to get forward in the attacking half as if they were playing in a 3-5-2 because of Michael Bradley’s ability to withdraw and perform as something akin to a third center back. He was a center back, however, with the ability to pass, pick out teammates and organize the cycling of the ball better than any standard defender.
Toronto (23-6-10) dominated the midfield with Victor Vazquez—who scored TFC’s stoppage-time insurance goal—and the hard-working Jonathan Osorio and Marco Delgado. They had outlets on the flank, Bradley behind them and Altidore and Giovinco as the first-half connector and danger man up front, respectively. Although Giovinco wasn’t sharp in front of goal, he was active, forcing Seattle to pay attention and limiting their options and organization when the ball turned over.
Toronto outshot Seattle 22-7 (the Sounders managed two shots on target—two more than they took last year) and held 57% of the possession. TFC was far superior in every aspect, from the bench to the field, and is a deserving champion.
The best season ever
TFC finished the job. The Reds set a record for points this season and ranked second all-time in regular season goal differential and goals scored. The team they finished behind in those categories, the 1998 LA Galaxy, fell in the conference finals and played in a far more modest league.
Those numbers, along with the roster quality and the aforementioned treble, leave TFC standing alone in the argument for best single-season MLS team. More will be asked of them, of course. Repeat. Make a run in the CONCACAF Champions League, which starts in February. But a standard has been set. It’s been set by a club that failed to make the playoffs during its first eight years in the league and that, rather than crumbling after last year’s heartbreaking defeat, raised its game.