Supporters’ Shield a symbol of how far TFC has come

Toronto FC teammates celebrate following their 4-2 victory over the New York Red Bulls in MLS soccer action Saturday September 30, 2017 in Toronto. (Jon Blacker/CP)

• New York Red Bulls 2 (Veron 39’), Toronto FC 4 (Morrow 32’, 37’, 90’ + 1’, Vazquez 81’)
• TFC clinch Supporters’ Shield as MLS regular season champions
• Reds secure home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs

TORONTO – Self-deprecating wit used to drip from the tongues of Toronto FC’s long-suffering fans like water from a running faucet.

TFC was so bad for so many years that supporters in the stands at BMO Field used to chant “we’re going to win the league” to amuse themselves. No more.

The Reds’ legion of loyal fans who stuck with the team through those incredibly lean times can legitimately sing about winning the league after TFC officially clinched the MLS regular-season title on Saturday with a 4-2 home win over the New York Red Bulls.

Wingback Justin Morrow bagged a hat trick and Victor Vazquez scored the winner from the penalty spot for Toronto who becomes the first Canadian team in MLS history to win the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the club that finishes the regular season in first place. It’s another piece of silverware that can go in Toronto’s trophy cabinet, alongside its six Canadian Championship honours. Winning the Shield also comes with the bonus of home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs, including for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9.

But the significance of winning the Supporters’ Shield goes far beyond that, as it’s a symbol of just how far the Reds have come. In 2012, Toronto lost its first nine games of the season and was the laughing stock of the entire league. Today, TFC is the model club of MLS.

Near the beginning of his tenure, former MLSE head honcho Tim Leiweke once famously asked “why can’t we be great?” The answer, of course, was TFC could. It took time, but they finally figured it out. Leiweke’s ambition paved the way. But the true credit goes to GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney, who rebuilt the roster from top to bottom, and radically changed the culture of this once floundering franchise.

“When I first got here [in 2014] there was a good amount of skepticism from the fans and the city because the team had been so well-supported, there was so much potential, but they hadn’t quite found the right way to get things going on the field,” captain Michael Bradley said after Saturday’s win.

“It’s not been easy and it’s not happened over night. But little by little we’ve got to the point where every person who comes into this stadium is proud of the team we have.”

Like Bradley, Jozy Altidore has played a starring role in TFC’s 2017 season that has seen the club win the Canadian Championship and the Supporters’ Shield. The big one, the MLS Cup, is what they’re really after, though.

“Look, we have goals that we wanted to accomplish, and having the best record in the league was one of them. Showing that we’re the best team in the league was one of them. … [But] now it’s a whole other mini-season in the playoffs, and we’re all excited to have home-field advantage and hopefully get back here come December [for the MLS Cup],” Altidore stated.

Vanney echoed Altidore’s sentiments.

“We’re very proud to win [the Supporters’ Shield]. We’re very proud to win it for our fans who have gone through a lot over the years. But we also know we have one big one left in front of us,” Vanney offered.

Altidore returned to TFC’s starting line-up on Saturday after sitting out the last three games with a hamstring injury. Fellow forward Sebastian Giovinco missed his fourth consecutive match with a quad strain. Defenders Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta went straight back into the starting 11 after both missed last week’s road loss in New England. Benoit Cheyrou entered the game as a late substitute, his first taste of action since suffering a calf injury in July.

Saturday marked the Red Bulls’ fifth game in 14 days, but they showed no signs of fatigue. New York used its renowned pressing game to swarm TFC players at every turn, giving them very little time on the ball.

A somewhat sloppy and physical opening half hour gave way to an exciting finale to the first half, as TFC withstood New York’s pressure and took a 2-0 lead through Morrow’s first-half brace. The wingback’s first goal came on a rebound from in close, mopping up after teammate Tosaint Ricketts. The second goal was a cool finish from the edge of the six-yard box, although there was a hint of offside on the play.

New York immediately responded, using the counter attack to perfect effect as they went straight down the middle. Tyler Adams delivered a pass that carved open Toronto’s back line for Gonzalo Veron to latch onto before he slotted it past TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono with a composed finish. Ricketts and Bradley both hit the post in the final minutes before halftime.

Ricketts came close again early in the second half, only to see Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles come up with a miraculous save to rob the Canadian forward of a sure goal. New York equalized after TFC defender Drew Moor was penalized for bringing down Veron inside the penalty area, and Daniel Royer converted from the spot.

The drama didn’t end there. New York defender Aaron Long tugged down Altidore inside the 18-yard-box, and referee Allen Chapman pointed to the spot. Vazquez stepped up and blew his penalty attempt past Robles. Morrow completed his hat trick in injury time, as he scrambled forward to tap in Altidore’s cross at the far post.

After the final whistle blew, TFC players and the coaching staff congregated in front of the south end of the stadium and celebrated with fans by beating a massive drum and doing the Viking thunder clap as fireworks went off.

NOTES: New York leads the all-time MLS series against Toronto, with 13 wins and seven draws in 28 meetings. The teams battled to a 1-1 draw on May 19 in New Jersey, with Cheyrou scoring for Toronto… TFC has a bye next week due to the international break. The Reds return to action on Oct. 15 when they host the Montreal Impact. TFC will be formally presented the Supporters Shield trophy during that game… Toronto’s final match of the regular season is the following weekend, away to Atlanta United FC…

TFC Pitchside will provide Toronto FC supporters with an inside look into their favourite obsession Monday nights at 11 pm ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. Call it an all-access pass for all things MLS brought to you by co-hosts Dan Riccio, Thomas Michalakos and producer Amil Delic. You'll hear from the biggest names around the club, and the MLS. You'll also get reviews and previews of every TFC game with reports from Pitchside at training and on game days at BMO Field. The Six is about to get done!