Toronto FC march to the 2017 MLS Cup was paved by its past failures—and that made Saturday all the better.
TORONTO—Championships are binary—either you win or you don’t—but they come in assorted sizes, textures and orders of magnitude. The nature of the ending depends on the story. In its 22 seasons, MLS has crowned different kinds of champions, and none should have to apologize for their story or feel less like a titlist because they sneaked into the playoffs on the final day, got a lucky bounce or, in the case of last season’s conquerors, won the final without taking a shot on goal. Rules are rules, and champions are champions.
But there has never been an MLS champion like 2017’s Toronto FC, which turned the tables on last year’s victor, the Seattle Sounders, with a resounding and cathartic 2-0 win in Saturday’s MLS Cup final. This title was about more than what transpired at TFC’s BMO Field. It was a culmination of an historic pursuit for glory and redemption that began with the agonizing memory of your choosing, whether it was the eight seasons of ineptitude that preceded the club’s first playoff berth in 2015, or the penalty-kick shootout loss to Seattle last year. And it capped off the most glittering campaign in league history, as the trophy that captain Michael Bradley lifted Saturday was TFC’s third of 2017. They are the first to win the Supporters’ Shield, their domestic cup and MLS Cup in a single season. Twelve predecessors managed two-thirds of that triple crown. None completed it.
There’s a large red placard standing around six feet tall hanging just inside the entrance to TFC’s locker room. It lists the club’s goals for 2017 and includes more granular aims like the number of shutouts or road points that coach Greg Vanney wanted his team to achieve. Then at the bottom, there’s the foundation—the mission propping up the whole season: the treble.
“I’m the first to say, I think this is the greatest team ever,” Vanney proclaimed in his postgame press conference. “Nobody has accomplished what this team has accomplished. … We still have things in front of us that we want to continue to achieve. We’re still writing this story. But in terms of seasons, I think we had the greatest season in the history of the league and I don’t think that’s debatable.”
If TFC continues to conquer, it’s hard to imagine it doing so in more of a storybook fashion. Because, as stated, titles take on different meanings depending on the journey and context. The Reds will move forward as a juggernaut—a North American soccer Goliath with even more money to spend and designs on winning the CONCACAF Champions League. That contrasts with Saturday’s game, which they entered on a more personal, compelling kind of mission.
The toll, intensity and meaning of that odyssey were evident in Bradley’s words as he spoke following Saturday’s win. He came to TFC in 2014, feeling like he’d been treated as surplus by AS Roma and hoping, after eight years in Europe and in the prime of his career, to put a club on his shoulders and change a culture. He found that opportunity in Toronto, was determined to make the most of it and was the best player on the field in last season’s MLS Cup final. Then he missed his penalty in the tiebreaker
In an emotional Instagram post a couple days later, Bradley wrote, “Dreams shattered. Tears shed. But its not finished. It doesn't end like this. … The pain and heartbreak of the last two days have made one thing very clear. I've never been more proud to call TFC my club and Toronto my home. Together our time will come.”
He’s said several times this season that TFC’s mission began the following morning as they gathered at the club’s training facility just north of the city. They would commit to everyday excellence. They would dominate the competition, redeem themselves and pay back the fans who initially stood with a bad team, then stood behind a beaten one.
“We had to lift this trophy. It has been an obsession for the last 364 days,” Bradley said Saturday night. “There’s no other word for it than ‘obsession’. It’s hard to describe to people on the outside what it’s been like to live that every day—to live that in the beginning of preseason when it feels like years away from a game, let alone a playoff game, let alone a final. … To cap it off tonight, in the way that we did, to play the way that we did with everything on the line—with all the supposed pressure on our shoulders—I’m so f***ing proud.”
In last year’s final, Toronto was frustrated and unfortunate. On Saturday, they played the sort of soccer you draw on a pregame whiteboard. TFC was at its best in the biggest moment, overwhelming the Sounders with precision (controlling 57% of possession) and power (winning more than 70% of its duels). Seattle made the Reds work for the goal—particularly goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the 2016 MLS Cup MVP who was just as spectacular in the rematch. And maybe a more fragile team lets Frei worm his way into its collective head. But TFC had spent an entire season fixated, and wasn’t going to lose the plot at the very end.
“After a year … like that, you just have to say, ‘Keep your foot on the gas and keep trying to create chances, and don’t be afraid you’re going to give something up in your endeavor to try and go win the game,” Vanney said, adding that one of the club’s preseason mantras was “Be Bold.”
Vanney said, “Nobody wins anything by being afraid.”
His 4-4-2, which evolved seamlessly into a 3-5-2 with Bradley as the withdrawn conductor when TFC had possession, moved the ball with ease and left Seattle chasing shadows across the BMO pitch. Bradley was the game’s architect—“His bald head was everywhere,” TFC’s Jozy Altidore said—and Altidore was named its MVP thanks to his well-taken winning goal in the 67th minute. The striker said that when he watches games, even for study purposes, he always takes notice of the celebrations. He looks into the crowd. And he admitted that he still recalls the faces of the TFC faithful after Seattle’s Román Torres buried the clinching penalty last year.
On Saturday, Altidore said, what he saw was “just euphoria.”
Players keep track of this kind of thing. Or at least they do in Toronto.
“These people, they suffered a long time. They came to watch games where their team was being dominated,” Altidore said. “Even in those years, they’re still averaging 20,000-22,000 fans per game. ... This night was for them. They’ve been the driving force for all this, even before we came here.”
Said Bradley, “The response of our fans and the response of this city last year after we lost was like nothing I’ve ever seen. They could’ve pointed fingers. They could’ve said, ‘You guys blew it. You had [the final] at home and you couldn’t take care of business.’ But the response in the days, and weeks and months after was so unique and so different than what you would typically expect. People were so proud.
“To see the way they treated us and the way they wrapped their arms around us after last year—we wanted to win regardless, but we wanted it so much more after that," he concluded. "To give them their night. Their moment.”
There were tense times on Saturday, to be sure. You could hear it in certain subdued moments. But BMO Field erupted when Altidore scored. Bradley said he knew TFC had it at that point. And the packed stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario shook again when Spanish midfielder Víctor Vázquez—a massive, season-altering winter addition—doubled the lead during stoppage time. That was the sound of catharsis, and it made the story even sweeter.
"Last year we said you made us believe. This year fulfill all of our dreams,” the pregame tifo hanging in the stadium’s south end read. Those dreams deferred made this particular championship feel a bit different than others.
This TFC project began in earnest in 2014. GM Tim Bezbatchenko had joined the club the previous fall and together with former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke, he helped bring Bradley to Toronto. Vanney took over in August 2014 and the following year, Altidore and future MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco signed on (he assisted on the game-winner). A championship core was in place, and then Bezbatchenko and Vanney rebuilt the back line in ’16 with the additions of Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour.
It’s been a steady rise, from missing the playoffs (2014), to making them ('15), to losing a gut-wrenching final ('16) and then winning it all on Saturday—and then some. This was a road to redemption paved with silver, the likes of which MLS hasn’t seen.
“You could tell that was a motivated franchise, a motivated coach, a motivated team,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Their success throughout the year, I believe was fueled by the loss last year.”
Said Vanney, who also lost the MLS Cup final three times as a player, “Congratulations to [Seattle], and thanks. They served as motivation for our group.”
Bradley has a preternatural ability to recall details. He remembers the route his driver took from the airport toward the stadium the day he arrived in Toronto after agreeing to join the club, in part because he never again used it on his own. On Friday, he said he called an Uber and didn’t offer any suggestions on how best to get from his house to the stadium. So the driver, naturally, took Highway 427 to the Gardiner Expressway—the same route Bradley took that first day in Toronto and not a single time since.
“I’m not necessarily a huge believer in fate and things like that,” Bradley said, “[But] to have it come full circle, to kind of finish things off this year in this way. ... It’s surreal. [Winning MLS Cup] is why I came. It’s why we came. It’s been the dream for the last four years. After the way things went last year, you can say for the last year it was an obsession.”
And it’s done now, without doubt or any possible detraction. This championship narrative was a perfect union of the technical and intangible. And it may be just the beginning of a longer story.