For decades, pro soccer had a tough time of it in the City of Toronto. Teams with such colourful names as the Blizzard, Lynx, Falcons and Metros-Croatia came and went, faltering on their own or going under as the leagues they competed in went out of business. The sport’s critics revelled in those failures, insisting that soccer only appealed to foreigners and that it would never work in Canada’s largest city. But there were people who believed it could not only endure but succeed in Toronto, who felt a pro team could expand the sport’s popularity far beyond the city’s ethnic communities. This is the story of Toronto FC, Major League Soccer’s first Canadian franchise.
RICHARD PEDDIE, former president and CEO of MLSE: I actually kicked the tires on a Major League Soccer franchise when I was running SkyDome. Fast-forward, I’m running Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, my November  strategic plan is coming along and I think, “Geez, 10 years ago I said the demographics in this city were ideal for football.”
TOM ANSELMI, former executive vice-president and COO of MLSE: There were obviously lots of soccer fans in Toronto. It wasn’t really a question of was there people who liked soccer; it was a question of would they buy into this brand of soccer? [Peddie] and I and a handful of others thought it could make sense and I guess we were right.
PEDDIE: I didn’t have to be a fan to recognize a good business idea. The market research said that to me. One day I just simply cold called [MLS commissioner] Don Garber and Mark Abbott [the league’s COO] and I said, “Listen, I’m going to be in [New York].” I wrote up a presentation, I presented it to them, immediately they were interested because we were Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The league was struggling, some owners owned multiple teams, it had really plateaued.
PAUL BEIRNE, former vice-president of business operations for TFC: We were bullish on the notion that we were going to get approved. It wasn’t like today where there are 12 cities lining up for two [expansion] spots. At that time, [the league] was just coming off of life support. We were being asked to pay $10 million. At that moment it was a pretty high-risk proposition.
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: [MLSE is] probably the biggest name in sports, certainly in Canada. When I knew they were involved, I thought, “This has a chance to survive.”
MLSE hit its first hurdle: If it did get a team, where would it play? MLS considered soccer-specific stadiums a necessity for expansion franchises.
DAVID MILLER, former mayor of Toronto: The role city council and I played at the time was building the stadium. [It] had been pitched to the federal and provincial governments as a stadium for the [2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup]. Nobody wanted to use public money for a white elephant that would have a great event and then not be used again. So, the potential of a franchise in the MLS was critically important to having that stadium built.
PEDDIE: Both the province and the feds had put up money [roughly $35 million] to build a stadium some place in Canada. The preference was Toronto, but there was no guarantee. I had talked David Miller — he’s a big soccer fan — into contributing. We also agreed we would build it on time. We guaranteed it’d be ready for the [under-20 World Cup] and if there were any overruns, we would pay for them.
MILLER: For practical and also romantic reasons, Exhibition Place made the most sense by far [as a location for the stadium].
DOUG MCINTYRE, ESPN.com reporter: At the time, soccer stadiums that were being built [in MLS], they were all [mostly] suburban venues. They were all out of the city. MLS wasn’t in a position to strong-arm municipalities. Toronto presented this opportunity, based on the location [of BMO Field], of having a different kind of fan. A young, urban professional with disposable income who would go to these games and create an atmosphere.
MLS approved the expansion bid, but there were still plenty of skeptics. The sport had a long history in Toronto, not all of it successful.
ANSELMI: The perception was soccer had failed in Toronto a number of times going back to the ’60s and ’70s. When we did our homework, in most cases, it was the leagues that failed.
PEDDIE: The leagues weren’t good, their player costs got way out of control, leagues went under, teams went under and it was a graveyard. So, when we first announced we were going to do this, we had all kinds of naysayers come out and say, “They’re gonna fail.”
JEFF BLAIR, Sportsnet columnist: They had a great facility — BMO field was a Godsend. Plus, MLSE was such a better-run organization than the previous incarnations of soccer in this city. The time was right.
JULIAN DE GUZMAN, former TFC midfielder: Knowing we finally had a professional soccer team in Canada playing in the MLS was fantastic. I was obviously an immediate fan for that team. It’s something I’d always dreamt of having. Growing up, the closest thing to professional [soccer] was the Toronto Lynx, Toronto Blizzards — obviously not at the level of where MLS is at now.
The stadium wasn’t the only thing to be built, there was also the team. The man charged with that task was Mo Johnston, Toronto FC’s first coach and general manager. A former striker of some repute, Johnston starred with both Rangers and Celtic in his native Scotland before moving to MLS where he ended his playing career with the Kansas City Wizards.
BEIRNE: On the soccer side, the first step was finding someone who we felt had the energy, the charisma and the gravitas amongst fans, the corporate community and the football community to be credible. That’s where Mo came in. We sought the advice of MLS, because we didn’t have a resident soccer expert, which became blatantly apparent after five or six years. [Laughs.]
LARRY TANENBAUM, chairman of MLSE: Building an expansion franchise from the ground up is not an easy task.
BEIRNE: I think Mo was one of the smartest decisions we made because he was so open to the fans, because he was able to multitask and triple-task.
EARL COCHRANE, former manager of team operations for TFC: He worked incredibly hard. He slept at some point, but I always had this image of Mo sleeping in a closet, standing up with his suit on, waiting to come out and get back to work.
BEIRNE: There were other [GM candidates] that we interviewed. I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying who they were. But they were well-known characters in MLS. Mo was an outsider. He was part of that first wave of import players in MLS and he was not part of the “American brotherhood” so to speak. But because he’d played in the league, he brought a lot of understanding of where the league had been and where he’d be able to take us.
On May 11, 2006, MLSE officially announced the name of the team during a press event at Ricoh Coliseum.
BEIRNE: We ran an online thing where we asked fans for their suggestions. We short-listed a few names. Then we did our own internal analysis and picked Toronto FC. The other names we considered were the Northmen, Toronto Reds, Inter Toronto FC — a few others. The fact was we were considering Inter Toronto FC. We registered that name. [But] Toronto FC comes off the tongue so easily and it’s intuitive. The day we announced it, [Peddie and Anselmi] got a call from the Argos, moaning and complaining because they were used to the letter “F” for football. There was a respectful discussion where they reminded the Argos they had a 100-year history and a 100-year head start on us.
At the same event, the team also unveiled its colour scheme and logo.
BEIRNE: The MLSE [designers] did a rough cut [of the logo] and sent it to the MLS guys, who refined it. Then it went to this agency called Amoeba. They were respectful of the other versions, but they brought it to another level. The guy who did that work was a designer named Ryan Smolkin, who went on to open [the restaurant chain] Smoke’s Poutinerie. He’s Smoke! He’s that face on their signs. So that face, I always tell people, he’s one of the guys who designed the TFC logo.
Long before the MLS expansion draft and NCAA draft, Johnston started building the roster through signings. The first player inked was Jim Brennan, a defender who left his hometown of Toronto as a teenager in the 1990s and went to England to play pro soccer.
JIM BRENNAN, former TFC defender and captain: I was finished with Southampton, and I started [contract talks] with Middlesbrough and Leicester. I got a call asking if I’d be interested in coming back home and playing for a new club in Toronto. At first, I was quite skeptical, and my first question was “Who owns it?”
BEIRNE: [Signing a Toronto native first] wasn’t by design, but it became apparent that it would be a really smart thing to do the minute the opportunity presented itself. Jimmy saw an opportunity to be the building block of something that was going to change the game in this country for guys like him in the future.
TERRY DUNFIELD, former TFC midfielder: I was still playing in England but [TFC coming into MLS] made a lot of waves over there. It turned a lot of heads. Then when they signed Jimmy Brennan, that really got my attention, thinking it might be something for me down the road. I thought it was great for Canadian soccer.
COCHRANE: Jimmy just fit. He was the obvious first piece.
BRENNAN: Since I was 17, I’d been playing over in Europe where you’re involved in clubs that have been around for 70 or 80 years. Now all of sudden I’m going to a team that’s Year 1 in 2007 and hasn’t even played a game. The stadium hadn’t even been built — there was nothing. I was just twiddling my thumbs thinking, “Have I made the wrong decision here?” You don’t know how it’s going to go, it could flop after a year.
The name, logo and colours were set. The stadium was under construction. The team was signing players. Now came time to reach out to the community, and sell tickets.
PEDDIE: We went on sale and we had a target probably of about 12,000 season seats. I got sales reports every night from Paul Beirne, and we started realizing we had a runaway train. We were offering discounts to all kinds of people and we said, “Cut the discounts; we don’t need to discount this.”
PHIL TOBIN, president of the Red Patch Boys supporters group: When I signed up [for season tickets], they couldn’t tell me how much it was, nobody could tell me. They weren’t even sure of the seating charts or anything because the stadium was still under construction. I think the deposit was 25 bucks, and they said, “We’ve got your deposit and we’re piecing it together to see who’s gonna fit wherever.” He asked where I wanted to sit and I said, “I want to sit where the traditional supporters would sit.” I had no idea that we already had supporters groups forming on the internet.
BEIRNE: By January, we already were a top three team in the league in terms of season tickets. And then David Beckham announced that he was joining LA, and that pushed us over the top. We ended up selling 14,000 and we had to turn people away. We sold more tickets on the back of that Beckham announcement than the LA Galaxy did.
Toronto FC made its MLS debut on April 7, 2007, taking on Chivas USA before 14,351 fans at the Home Depot Center in suburban Los Angeles. TFC lost 2-0. Losses would define much of that first season.
BRENNAN: You always want to win, but as a team, we just weren’t there yet. We didn’t have the quality.
BEIRNE: Malcolm [Phillips] was our [equipment manager], but also the travel secretary, so he was booking flights. And he wasn’t very fond of computers, so it was all old school, on a flip phone. When we were on the road, he’d be doing laundry in public laundromats, going in at two in the morning and occupying six machines with a bag full of quarters. So, we were pretty modest with our expectations on the field.
NIGEL REED, CBC commentator: Mo Johnston was very upbeat and optimistic at the time about how he was going to have success with the franchise. I remember him saying something along the lines of “Don’t treat us like an expansion team.” Famous last words.
BLAIR: They just weren’t good enough. You expect that from an expansion team, but you also expect a little bit of creativity. Usually you’ll see some signs that they might be good. There were no signs they would be good.
ANSELMI: We had Canadian content rules that, at the time, we thought were going to be really supportive to the Canadian player, but they ended up being punitive to the team.
JAMES SHARMAN, Sportsnet commentator: TFC, when I first saw them, was pretty dire. They had one or two good players — Danny Dichio, Carl Robinson, Ronnie O’Brien — but as a whole they weren’t very good. The fans were what made the first year relevant. And the second year, and the third year and the fourth year.
TOBIN: I showed up at the first [home] match with my buddy and it was just like, “This is great!” Everybody’s standing, everyone’s yelling. I was instantly like, “Yes, I made the right decision. This is where I belong [in the south end].”
PEDDIE: It was all natural energy. There was no mascot, there were no timeouts with entertainment, there was no half-time act.
STEPHEN BRUNT, Sportsnet columnist: They erect this kind of tinker-toy stadium down on the lake, which is not anything great. And they put a soccer team in a city where all those other soccer leagues have failed. And they don’t really do anything. There’s no kind of hells-a-poppin’ presentation or anything. And the crowd became the show, instantly. Of the stuff I’ve seen live, that [first home] game was one of my absolute favourite experiences. Because it was organic. You had the Red Patch Boys and the various other supporters groups down at the end, and they were singing witty songs. The team was crappy but there was this sense of real ownership that wasn’t like somebody was selling you arena football. It was the opposite of that, because it came out of the ground.
DE VOS: I wouldn’t say the league was struggling to survive but they had certainly gone through some lean years. TFC came on board and all of a sudden the fan experience was nothing like anybody in the league had seen before. All the teams that have come on board since TFC’s arrival in 2007 have all looked at that fan experience as being a key part in running a successful organization.
BLAIR: The time was right. They were open to having supporters’ groups. They had stuff that we associate with European soccer. You don’t see that in North America. It’s remarkable that [despite all] of the missteps they made on the field they’ve been able to maintain that fan base.
PEDDIE: We were a tough place to play and an exciting place to play and all of a sudden all kinds of places started saying, “Geez, I want to be in this league.” What we did back then, I’m not sure it saved MLS, that would be very unfair [to say], but it sure gave MLS a shot in the arm. Today they’re over 20 teams, they’ve done great new broadcast deals. I don’t think I’m bragging here and being really egotistical: Toronto FC caused that to happen.
Toronto FC didn’t exactly come flying out of the gate to start the 2007 season, the franchise’s first in Major League Soccer. The Reds lost their first four games and failed to score a single goal in that run. But failing to find the back of the net well into May simply set the stage for a hard-as-nails forward who was a journeyman in his native England before signing with the Reds a month earlier.
DANNY DICHIO, Sportsnet analyst and former TFC forward: I was playing with Preston North End [in the English second division] at that time. I knew there were a few coaches and players in MLS who were in England before: Steve Nicol, Paul Mariner, John Spencer, who I played with at QPR. I knew it was a growing league, that they were still in the early stages, but there was a growing interest amongst players in England wanting to come over to MLS.
JIM BRENNAN, former TFC defender and captain: We played against each other in England. He was a big brute. He was like a bigger, stronger Crouchie [current Premier League striker Peter Crouch]. Danny could mix it up with you as well; he’d sharpen those elbows of his. He was dirty when he wanted to be. He could be a prick when he wanted to be. [Laughs.]
CRAIG FORREST, Sportsnet commentator and former Premier League goalkeeper: I played against him a few times in England, but he never scored on me, which is I something I remind him about to this day.
DICHIO: Both D.C. United and the Chicago Fire invited me over for trials. I got clearance from Preston North End, because I was still under contract. I joined the Fire down in Florida for a week of pre-season training [in the winter of 2007], and they wanted to offer me a contract. It all went tits up when I told them I never lived in the United States, that I wasn’t a green card holder, and I had no idea why they thought I did — maybe because my wife was American. I immediately fired my agent, I got back on the plane to England and when we landed back in Manchester, I checked my messages. There were voicemails from [TFC coach and GM] Mo Johnston and the D.C. United coach. Both heard what happened in Florida, and they were eager to bring me in. Mo said they had an international spot open for me. He said, “We have a contract for you, we can send it over tomorrow.” And he wanted me to come to Toronto for a visit. I knew Mo from his playing days with Rangers and Celtic in Scotland. He said, “This is an expansion team, it’s exciting times, it’s a great city.” Toronto was a whole new adventure for me and the family. We were worried because we’d never been to the city. My wife did research and found out good stuff about the city, but we were moving a young family over, so it was a big step for us.
Dichio joined Toronto on April 15, shortly after the start of the MLS campaign. His first practice with the team was a rude awakening, though, as he discovered that BMO Field featured an artificial surface, not natural grass as was standard in England.
DICHIO: The first day I was there, I said, “Wow, this pitch is in great shape. It’s really green for this time of year.” Then I took a couple more steps onto it, and I said to myself, “Shit. This is turf!” I don’t know if that would have made a big difference in terms of signing with Toronto had I known from the start. But I had two back injuries earlier in my career, and playing and training on the turf was not good for me, so I was pretty pissed off.
Toronto lost its first three games of the season, all of them on the road. The home opener on April 28 against the Kansas City Wizards was a rematch — TFC had lost 3-0 in Kansas City three days earlier. The game also marked Dichio’s debut for the club, but there’d be no storybook ending — Eddie Johnson scored in the 81st minute to lift the Wizards to a 1-0 win. The pressure was building on TFC after going four matches without a goal.
DICHIO: I was never a [prolific] goal scorer; I was more of an assist man. I could set up smaller guys, play them into danger. That was what I did. The pressure wasn’t on me massively, but I felt that there was immense pressure within the camp and the team. With so much media focus and the bad press we were getting and the fans’ expectations, it was starting to bubble over and it was getting to a lot of players in the buildup to the Chicago game.
Following a bye week after the Kansas City loss, Toronto hosted the Chicago Fire on May 12, the Reds’ fifth game of the season.
PAUL BEIRNE, former vice-president of business operations for TFC: That [game against Chicago] was supposed to be our first home game, that was supposed to be our grand opening. The schedule changed and we ended up getting another game before that. We had gone three games on the road and one at home with no goals, and supporters were singing, “All we are saying, is give us a goal.” [To the tune of “Give Peace a Chance”.]
BRENNAN: I don’t think any of us played that long without scoring a goal [before]. We were trying everything and sometimes when you try the hardest things don’t come off for you.
Twenty-four minutes in, Toronto’s Marvell Wynne delivered a ball into the box from the right flank. Edson Buddle played a quick 1-2 with rookie Maurice Edu. Buddle took the return ball from Edu and ran to the far post, before playing a low pass across the goalmouth for Dichio to scramble home the first goal in franchise history.
DICHIO: It was a special goal in the sense that it was our first, but if I’m being honest, it wasn’t very pretty. I remember Mo Edu released Edson Buddle down the right in the box. I didn’t make too much movement in taking my defender away from the near post, I just burst into the six-yard box and bundled it in.
STEPHEN BRUNT, Sportsnet columnist: I was there with my oldest son and the Dichio goal played out right in front of us. I remember it being, like, it’s not Maradona going down and beating seven guys, it’s classic Dichio, because he’s a big donkey of a player and the ball hit somebody and it went in.
BEIRNE: That one goal, that moment, I can still see it vividly. The cross into the middle — Danny didn’t really bury it as much as run through it. But it was still the most elegant goal in Toronto FC history. [Laughs.]
BRENNAN: The energy in the stadium was awesome. Absolutely amazing. You could feel it coming. I remember when Danny scored, what a release that was, the energy coming from all over the stadium. We ran over to the corner flag to celebrate and fans were blowing kisses to Danny.
DICHIO: What a relief. It was just the elation of we finally scored; the sense of occasion took over. It wasn’t the goal itself, but rather that we finally put the ball into the back of the net as a team.
The team had handed out plastic seat cushions as spectators entered the stadium and what followed Dichio’s goal was described by Fox Sports’ play-by-play man Max Bretos as “bedlam in Canada.”
RICHARD PEDDIE, former president and CEO of MLSE: I walked through the turnstiles, just like a fan, and they handed me a seat cushion and I turned to my wife, Colleen, and I said, “Oh shit.” She said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “You can throw this.” We learned that from the Leafs. One year we handed out little rattles and the rattles ended up on the ice. And you don’t hand out little basketballs at a basketball game. So, I knew we had a risk there.
TOM ANSELMI, former executive vice-president and COO of MLSE: We had unpadded seats and they could be a little chilly at certain times of the year, so I think that’s what drove the idea. Did we at all think about it as a projectile? No.
BEIRNE: We had this heartwarming idea of people bringing them to every game and sitting on them. We didn’t think people would throw them. [Laughs.] One seat cushion flew, and then a thousand did. I was probably 12 rows up, and I had to run down and help people clear them from the field. The edges of those were pretty sharp. I’m surprised we didn’t get any complaints about people getting hit in the head.
DICHIO: I didn’t know what was going on at first. I didn’t even know they handed out seat cushions that day. But it really added to the occasion.
BRENNAN: I saw fans throw streamers and bags of urine down in Central America when I played for Canada, but never in my life did I see anything like that. It felt like we won the MLS Cup.
PHIL TOBIN, president of the Red Patch Boys supporters group: I threw everything that wasn’t nailed down. That was probably the most emotional [sporting] event that I’ve ever been a part of — I was just blown away by it.
EARL COCHRANE, former manager of team operations for TFC: The Monday after, coming into the office, I remember seeing images of that moment on Japanese TV. I got a call from the MLS head office saying we shouldn’t have done that, but then out the side of their mouth saying, “Amazing.”
BEIRNE: We saw it on Chinese and European news sites. It was all over YouTube. That moment connected us to the rest of the world in a way that you couldn’t imagine.
PEDDIE: Of the 20,000 people there, 20,000 seat cushions ended up on the pitch.
To this day, in the 24th minute of every game TFC fans belt out a song dedicated to the English striker.
BRUNT: The fact Dichio became a folk hero and they still sing the song every match — he’s the perfect guy. He was kinda just happy to be here. He played enough at a high level but he was nothing special, kind of a good bloke, right? Perfect.
DICHIO: It was a few games into it them doing it that I heard they were singing about me. I didn’t even recognize it, to be completely honest. As a player, you’re focused on the game. You hear certain sounds and cheers from the stands. Finally, someone pointed out to me, “You know they’re singing your name at the 24th minute because of the goal, right?” I finally focused in and I said “Wow, they really are!” Hopefully, it’ll be sung for years to come because my kids love coming to the stadium and hearing that song. I feel humbled and embarrassed some times.
TFC beat Chicago 3-1, with second-half goals by Maurice Edu and Kevin Goldthwaite. Dichio further endeared himself to the Toronto fans just before halftime when a fracas with Chicago midfielder Diego Gutiérrez earned both players red cards from referee Silviu Petrescu. Dichio walked off the pitch to thunderous applause.
DICHIO: I still run into Petrescu now and again, and we kind of laugh about it because for me it was a normal scuffle — in English soccer we call it “handbags.” Getting a round of applause for being ejected was something I called home to my dad about. I said, “They actually cheered me off, but I’m not sure if it was because they were happy I got the goal or happy I was coming off.” [Laughs.]
FORREST: He was a scrapper. It really endeared him to the fans.
After the game, with the media crowded around Dichio’s stall in the locker room, one reporter jokingly asked how it felt to record a “Gordie Howe hat trick.” Dichio responded, “Who’s Gordie Howe?”
DICHIO: I remember the media was aghast; they were giving me scathing looks. I found out [later] who Gordie Howe was, and what kind of player he was. I’m still slightly embarrassed about it. No disrespect to Mr. Howe, God bless his soul. That was my introduction to Canadian ice hockey.
Dichio played two more years before retiring on September 9, 2009 with six games left in the regular season. He currently serves as the head coach of Toronto FC’s senior youth team, TFC III, and is an analyst for Sportsnet.
DICHIO: [Mo Johnston] told me they had to open up a spot on the roster because they were bringing in Julian [de Guzman]. They offered me a spot on the staff, told me they were going to look after me and my family. It was a decision I was glad to make in order to bring Julian in. I was going to retire at the end of the season anyway. The only regret I have is that I didn’t get to play a final game at home to say goodbye to the fans.
Entering their third season, TFC was still chasing its first real on-field success. The fan base was already one of the best in North America, but apart from brief moments like Dichio’s 24th-minute goal, they hadn’t been given much to cheer about. The team had won just 15 games through its first two losing seasons, and had yet to notch a significant victory. In an attempt to jumpstart the product on the pitch, the Reds added genuine star power in 2009 in the form of midfielder Julian de Guzman and fellow Canadian Dwayne De Rosario, one of the best players in the history of MLS.
CRAIG FORREST, Sportsnet commentator and former Premier League goalkeeper: It was frustrating from a fan’s point of view, but also from a broadcaster’s. I think Gerry [Dobson] and I called five wins in our first 55 games that we broadcasted.
PAUL BEIRNE, former vice-president of business operations for TFC: We wanted playoffs by year three and to be serious contenders by year four.
EARL COCHRANE, former manager of team operations for TFC: It was a unique group of guys on that squad. When you look back on it, there was a very good veteran mix of players. It was a very tight group.
After a rare road win in Kansas City in the season opener, TFC went winless through its next four games. Second-year coach John Carver was absent from the bench for TFC’s home win over Chivas USA on April 22. Three days later, he quit. Assistant coach Chris Cummins took over.
BEIRNE: John left for personal reasons that I still don’t understand. But he was just stressed out. He would let [fitness coach] Paul Winsper wind him up. They’d get on the GO train in Oakville to come to the city, and Paul would go, “Have you seen what they’re writing about you [in the media]?” I think Paul would do it for sport. John was a fan favourite and he had the team well organized. He had a tactical acumen and technical way about him that was appropriate for a team that needed to be precisely coached. I just wonder what would have been different if he stuck around longer.
Alongside the MLS regular season, TFC was competing in the Canadian club championship, a round-robin tournament that also included the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps, who were both playing in the second-tier USL at the time. Toronto was in second place in the tournament (behind Vancouver) going into the final game. On the road in Montreal, the team needed to win by four goals to beat out the Whitecaps and lift the Voyageurs Cup.
CARL ROBINSON, former TFC midfielder: Chris Cummins was the manager and we’d been written off, because I think we’d [previously] lost in Vancouver, and we needed to go to Montreal and score four goals. I don’t think we’d scored more than three or four goals in our history. No one gave us a chance, [but] I said to the guys, “Miracles do happen.”
DANNY DICHIO, Sportsnet analyst and former TFC forward: We put a strong [starting lineup] out that day. There was a certain amount of confidence that we could get a result.
JIM BRENNAN, former TFC defender and captain: Montreal made a lot of lineup changes. They had a big game against Vancouver [in the USL] a few days after. They wanted to rest their key guys for that, so they made a lot of changes, and we had our full squad.
GERRY DOBSON, former Sportsnet commentator: I remember thinking, even early on, “Boy oh boy, the Impact are throwing on their reserve team here.” If Toronto could get one goal then anything could happen because those Montreal guys were not up to TFC’s level.
TFC’s chances seemed to be dashed in the 23rd minute when defender Nick Garcia brought down Montreal forward Peter Byers inside the box. Tony Donatelli converted the ensuing penalty to give the Impact the lead. Toronto now had to score five times without conceding.
DICHIO: I had early [scoring] chances where on another day I would have put them home easily. I had a shot and a header that I should have buried.
COCHRANE: Montreal took the lead, and I said to myself, “Okay, now it’s over.” [Laughs.]
DICHIO: We were creating opportunities, so even when Montreal scored, we never panicked. We knew that the tactics of the day were to get the ball, get it into the box, get the ball into me and then feed off of me. We had “DeRo” floating around. We were really putting them on the back foot after they scored that first goal. They looked very wobbly at the back. It was just a sense of we could do something.
De Rosario got things started for Toronto, burying a fantastic bicycle kick past former TFC goalkeeper Srdjan Djekanovic in the 29th minute and scoring again in the 39th to put the Reds up 2-1 at halftime.
BRENNAN: Serge was in net, a young goalkeeper, and one of the things we figured was we had to get in his head early. We have to bully him a little bit. He was great guy, a lovely fellow, who was with us that first season. But when you’re on the field, the friendship goes out the window.
DICHIO: Not much was said at halftime. It was more a sense of belief that the game was there for the taking.
De Rosario completed his hat trick in the 49th, slipping one past Djekanovic after beating Montreal’s offside trap. Amado Guevara made it 4-1 in 69th, curling a gorgeous free kick from 25 yards out just inside the near post.
BRENNAN: DeRo scored pretty quickly at the start of the second half. After that the flood gates opened.
COCHRANE: Dwayne put on a performance for the ages. He carried that squad on his back.
Chad Barret scored in the 82nd minute, heading home from in close off of a Guevara corner kick. 5-1. It was the first time in club history they had ever scored five times in a game.
BRENNAN: We were holding on for dear life after Chad’s goal.
Guevara scored in the final minute of regulation to seal the win and the players rushed onto the field at the final whistle. Most of the fans had left Stade Saputo by then, but approximately 200 travelling TFC supporters remained in the drizzling rain to watch their heroes hoist the trophy, the club’s first.
DICHIO: I remember the first glass of champagne. It was more bubbles than champagne. [Laughs.] We had a good night out in Montreal. I remember Jimmy [Brennan] going crazy because it was so special for him, this being a derby game against Montreal and him being a local guy.
JAMES SHARMAN, Sportsnet commentator: That comeback shows that you can have magical nights in MLS. [TFC fans] finally had something where they could say “Okay, remember that night when?” Having an actual moment when the improbable happened, it allowed the fans to put that picture up on a wall somewhere.
DICHIO: The win in Montreal was a real coming together as a group. To show we are on the map, we can do stuff. For that team and the staff we had, that was a huge moment.
COCHRANE: The team flew back into the [Toronto Island airport] the next day, and all of our staff went down to meet them. There were probably 50 to 100 fans at the same time when they emerged with the trophy from the plane. It was a great moment for the club. Spectacular.
Even sweeter for Toronto was that the Whitecaps were in attendance at Stade Saputo that evening.
BRENNAN: What fired us up even more was seeing the Whitecaps coaching staff and players in the stands, waiting to pick up the trophy. We pretty much looked at each other and said, “Over our dead bodies.” I can remember lifting the trophy on the pitch in the rain with our fans chanting, and watching the Whitecaps get up and walk out. That’s what got everybody going — that they were there to pick up the trophy. Cheeky bastards.
COCHRANE: To this day, every time I have a chance to bring it up to the guys in Vancouver, I certainly do. [Laughs.]
Toronto FC continued battling for an MLS playoff spot, bolstering that push with the addition of De Guzman, who was a star midfielder with Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna. De Guzman inked a three-year deal in September under what was colloquially referred to as the “David Beckham rule.”
JULIAN DE GUZMAN, former TFC midfielder: I remember hearing about TFC having interest in me. It was for one of the [designated player] positions, and to be honest, at that time I didn’t even know what “DP” meant. But it was my hometown — a team that I was following since their introduction — and it was a very big contract, probably the biggest of my career. I was overwhelmed but I wasn’t in a rush to jump on that opportunity because I still felt I had a couple years [left] in Europe. But in September, I still didn’t have a team, and that’s when I finally made a decision to join Toronto FC. I didn’t know what to expect. But I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else outside of Europe than Toronto.
Entering the final stretch of the regular season with just two wins in their previous eight games, TFC wasted no time in rushing De Guzman into duty.
DE GUZMAN: I remember right after I signed, I had a game in L.A. against the Galaxy — against David Beckham — and I wasn’t fit. It was towards the end of the season. I had done some training on my own, but to be game-fit, I knew I wasn’t there. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t embarrass myself, so I was kind of reluctant on maybe playing. But [the team] insisted. They did a couple tests on me and I passed and next thing you know I’m playing against the L.A. Galaxy. We lost 2-0. I remember how tired I was, and it wasn’t because of the game, it was more because of the travel. That was the first culture shock I experienced right after I signed.
Toronto drew its next two matches before beating Real Salt Lake 1-0 on October 17 in its home finale. It was a crucial win, as it pushed the Reds above RSL in the race for a wild-card berth. TFC entered the final game of the season needing a win to earn their first playoff berth. Standing in the way were the New York Red Bulls, the last-place team in MLS.
DE GUZMAN: We all felt, I guess, over-confident. I didn’t know much about New York and I knew this was a game where we could make history, but it just seemed like everything went wrong the moment the ref blew the whistle.
ROBINSON: I had done my knee and I was back in Wales recovering from the operation. I spoke to Chris Cummins the day before the game and all I remember is they changed system. They used to play in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 [formation] and they changed to a 3-5-2, for whatever reason, and I think Juan Pablo [Angel] and [Macoumba] Kandji for New York Red Bulls killed them.
JEFF BLAIR, Sportsnet columnist: It was the last soccer game played [in Giants Stadium]. It was a horrible day. The game was delayed, there was lightning, it was biblical rain.
Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji opened the scoring for New York in the second minute, slipping between TFC defenders Nana Attakora and Emmanuel Gomez, and driving a shot past goalkeeper Brian Edwards. Kandji then set up Juan Pablo Angel, who netted New York’s second goal in the 33rd minute.
COCHRANE: They scored two times [in the first half] and that forced us to open up a little bit more, and we just had no answer.
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: I was there doing colour commentary. It was a like a slow-motion train wreck. It was lashing down rain. It was a miserable night. It felt like a training match. No intensity and no urgency — “Come on guys. Pull your finger out and get it done.” But they didn’t.
Angel made it 3-0 in the 62nd minute with a side-footed shot that Edwards should have saved. In injury time, defender Adrian Serioux hacked down Kandji from behind, and Matthew Mbuta converted from the penalty spot. 5-0. Game over. Season over. Again.
DE GUZMAN: It was an embarrassment because of how we lost. The fans from Toronto came down, everyone had high expectations that we were going to make it through because, to be honest, on paper, this was probably the best TFC team I played with.
BEIRNE: It was more of a feeling of, “F—! What next?” That’s when the sad sack Toronto FC thing kind of thing started. That was a new low.
BLAIR: I was covering the game for the Globe and Mail, and I went down into the locker room, and I don’t know if I have ever covered a team that was more devastated. They had a player named Sam Cronin, who was a young American [rookie], decent guy. I remember him just standing in the middle of the locker room and saying “We’re f—ed.” He just said “I don’t know what to say.” Dwayne De Rosario was there as well and he just said at some point, “I’m tired of talking about this.” It was the most depressing thing I had covered.
DE VOS: That game and that performance just summed up the club in so many ways at that point in time.
BLAIR: I think that was probably the lowest point of the franchise. The first playoff berth was in their grasp and it looked like they weren’t interested. That was the point where a lot of fans started to wonder whether this cared. I remember coming away thinking there was something wrong at the core of that.
DE GUZMAN: From that moment, [management] had high expectations going into 2010. That was the one thing I was looking forward to immediately, hoping that we could bounce back.
In the aftermath of the “Meadowlands Massacre,” Toronto FC decided not to renew Chris Cummins’s contract. Instead, the club introduced Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic as its fourth head coach ahead of the 2010 season. Born in Serbia, Preki had been a star player during MLS’s early years, winning league MVP honours and goal-scoring titles in 1997 and 2003. As a coach, he’d led Chivas USA to the MLS playoffs in each of the three previous seasons and been named MLS coach of the year in 2007. But he also had a reputation as an authoritative task master who didn’t suffer fools. It was argued that his stern attitude, demanding training routine and focus on defensive soccer were exactly what the team needed coming off the 5-0 capitulation to New York.
RICHARD PEDDIE, former president and CEO of MLSE: That [loss to end the 2009 season] caused us to overact and we went out and we hired Preki and, frankly, to put it in the vernacular, that was a f—in’ disaster. He completely changed the team, he was fighting with Mo [Johnston, the team’s GM] immediately.
PAUL BEIRNE, former vice-president of business operations for TFC: Hiring Preki was just a bad experiment. He blew up the team. We were on a positive trajectory, even with the loss in New York, and we took a backwards step. He approached the game differently than everybody before him. He said, “This isn’t the right style, these aren’t the players I want.” Having just missed the playoffs, we should have tinkered and improved, instead of blowing it all up and starting again. Preki had a good reputation, but he wasn’t the right coach for us at that moment. That  season was real set back.
JULIAN DE GUZMAN, former TFC midfielder: Going into the  season, I think almost the entire  team was traded. I don’t think we were expecting such a big changeover.
PEDDIE: When you’ve got a coach that’s all for offence, if you fire that coach and you bring in another that’s all for defence, you’re going to have a complete roster change. We had too many roster changes and coaches and general managers. No continuity, and that’s a recipe for failure.
DE GUZMAN: The first half of the  season we got off to a really good start, were actually in playoff position, things were looking bright. But going into the second half, I knew that we were going to run into trouble because players were already burnt out. Preki was very demanding — physically, psychologically — and you could slowly see the team deteriorate toward the end of the season.
Preki didn’t last long. With TFC in a tailspin — tied for the second-worst offence in MLS and looking like they would miss the playoffs for a fourth straight year — both he and general manager Mo Johnston were fired on Sept. 10, 2010. Assistant Nick Dasovic took over with seven games left in the campaign.
DE GUZMAN: Nick Dasovic came in. He became my third coach going into my second year at TFC. A lot of changeover.
EARL COCHRANE, former manager of team operations for TFC: [Johnston] was a funny guy. He was hard working. He was a hard guy to get to really know. Private. But I think he was smarter than people give him credit for. His ability to do certain things, to get onto the side of other GMs, to befriend them, was a real good skill to have. He was engaging. He had a great relationship with everyone internally the first few years. Of course, as success didn’t come, that deteriorated a little bit and it culminated in 2010.
GERRY DOBSON, former Sportsnet commentator: The problem was there were no checks and balances in [MLSE] from a soccer point of view because they were all hockey people. Mo had free rein, which wasn’t a good thing because he needed somebody above him to rein him in.
BEIRNE: TFC was very, very lean in the buildup to the first season, and then two years after the launch. Mo Johnston was everything. He was literally out on the pitch kicking the ball with his players at practice, and he had a phone in his pocket, and he was taking calls from other GMs. His Achilles heel, in hindsight, was the separation of the importance of building a team versus the importance of getting better players. He was always looking to upgrade. As a general statement, any time you can do a trade when you feel you can get the better part of that trade, you should do that. But every time you do that, you upset the apple cart, you upset the locker room.
COCHRANE: I think he did as good of a job as you could at the beginning of three years of a new franchise in a new country. We were also faced with being the only Canadian cub. We certainly didn’t have the types of resources that new expansion franchises have now and the rules were different for us.
DANNY DICHIO, Sportsnet analyst and former TFC forward: In those early years, it was all about “we need results, we need them now, and we’re going to keeping chopping and changing until we get it.” There was no stability and no security for the staff or players.
DOUG MCINTYRE, ESPN.com reporter: I think there was a jealousy almost among other clubs because other teams in MLS that had been successful had such a hard time drawing fans. I think a lot of people looked to Toronto and said “Wow, we would love to have a 15,000-person waitlist for season tickets even though we’ve had two bad seasons.”
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: Todd Dunivant was arguably the best left fullback in the league during his career — certainly one of the most consistent players in MLS. That guy was a real asset and he was traded away for a bag of balls.
Anger wasn’t reserved for Johnston alone. Despite TFC’s losing ways in those early years, the team routinely filled BMO Field and there was a general feeling that MLSE was more interested in making money than winning.
LARRY TANENBAUM, chairman of MLSE: No one wants to win more than I do.
PEDDIE: We’re fans, we want to win as fans, we want to win because it’s our vocation, what we do for a living. We were still selling a lot of tickets, but not what we were selling before. When the team isn’t winning, as I like to say, the hot dogs don’t taste as good.
BEIRNE: I can remember town halls [with season ticket holders] where we just had to sit up there and take it. It builds character, I guess. [Laughs.] But I think people appreciated that they could come to an event and vent.
JAMES SHARMAN, Sportsnet commentator: The sentiment between the club and the fans really started to degenerate. And outside the soccer community in Canada, they were becoming a laughing stock. The club was seen as a joke, quite frankly, which was a real stab in the heart of the fans of that team.
MCINTYRE: You’re talking about a time where the majority of the teams make the playoffs. At some point, it’s harder to be that bad than it is to be good.
STEPHEN BRUNT, Sportsnet columnist: [Former executive vice-president and COO of MLSE] Tom Anselmi is a pal of mine. He said, “If you ever want come to a game with your boys, just let me know.” I said, “How about this match [Oct. 16, 2010]?” It turned out [the fans] had the silent protest. The idea was that MLSE were cheap bastards and wouldn’t go out and get talent. So, the supporters have this silent protest, and Anselmi is the focus of it because he’s the face of MLSE. They held up giant signs with dollar signs on them. And [the supporters’ groups] didn’t sing. I remember standing on the side of the pitch and I thought someone was gonna shoot him. I’ve never felt that, hate coming down. Just kind of edging away from Tom with my kids, right? “Just don’t stand close to that nice man.” [Laughs.] Someone’s gonna throw something at him. It was really bleak.
JEFF BLAIR, Sportsnet columnist: When Ryan Nelson was coaching TFC [in 2014], I went in to do an interview with him. I remember sitting in his office and him saying, “I’ve never seen an organization with as much money that spends it in the wrong places. We’ve got video equipment we don’t use. We get the best of everything.” I remember him saying off the record, “We get the best of everything except for players.” That was one of the issues with the De Rosario contract controversy. It played into the idea that Toronto FC was cheap. Toronto FC is not cheap, they just spent it in the wrong places.
Late in the 2010 season with the Reds fighting to stay alive in the playoff race, star player and captain Dwayne De Rosario scored his team-leading 12th goal of the campaign at home against San Jose. After the goal, he ran to the sidelines and repeatedly made a gesture as though he were signing a cheque. What did the gesture mean? Simple: He wanted a pay raise. De Rosario was the third-highest paid player on the team and felt he deserved more. The rare act of public defiance put the dysfunction of the club out in the open for everyone to see.
DE VOS: I called that game with Nigel [Reed], and I remember thinking to myself, “What has he done?” I’ve played with Dwayne. I know what he’s like. He’s a wonderful player, extremely talented. I’ve talked to him since about it and I completely understand his viewpoint and the emotions about the situation he was in. The reality is, though, there are ways to go about it.
COCHRANE: Dwayne scored the goal, did the cheque-signing thing, and then a few moments later [San Jose] scored to retake the lead, which in so many ways summed up my whole feeling of that game. At the time, I had pretty regular discussions with Dwayne’s agent. I remember thinking that this isn’t going to help. To a certain extent, I understand it — the emotion.
DOBSON: The blame probably lies at the feet of management. Here was a guy who was clearly the best player on the team at that time, but not making the most money on that team.
PHIL TOBIN, president of the Red Patch Boys supporters group: That was a really controversial point for a lot of supporters. “DeRo” is one of the defining players of the franchise and for Canada. It took a lot of guts to do what he did, and I don’t think it altered anything for me. I respected the guy before, I respected him after.
BLAIR: If any other player had done that the fans would have gone on the pitch and beaten the shit out of him. Because [De Rosario] was a local guy fans cut him a certain amount of slack.
Since signing with TFC the previous January, De Rosario had firmly established himself as the club’s franchise player. His 23 goals ranked him as the team’s all-time leading scorer (that mark has since been eclipsed), he’d helped Toronto win back-to-back Canadian club championships and was named the club’s MVP in 2010. He was also generous with his time off the field, representing the team at countless charity and promotional appearances. It was hard to imagine where Toronto FC would be without him.
COCHRANE: Of the three MLSE teams at that time [Toronto FC, the Maple Leafs and the Raptors], I would make the argument Dwayne was the most recognizable, marketable and approachable of the captains. We’d go to public events with the three teams and Dwayne was the guy everyone wanted to talk to. Local guy, Toronto FC captain, a national team member — he had the city in the palm of his hand if he wanted it.
DE GUZMAN: I definitely felt bad for DeRo and the frustrations. With the amount he’s contributed to the team, you know, the endless goals he was bringing and him being a fan favourite, the timing of that [gesture] definitely backfired, just on him. The team wasn’t doing well, and there’s no player bigger than the club, right? So, that was the lesson. But I definitely felt for him and I think a lot of people who understood what he was going through understood his frustrations. It was an unfortunate season.
DWAYNE DE ROSARIO (to Lori Ewing of the Canadian Press and John Molinaro, then with CBC, after the San Jose game): I think I’ve shown my commitment to this team and this city and this franchise. It’s time for [the club] to show me some commitment as well. Every year I’ve been showing my worth and it’s about time they come to me with something. I know of other clubs that have gone to their star players and ripped up their contracts and I think it’s only fair. It does get frustrating after a while — after you continue to give your all and perform.
On April 1, 2011, two weeks into the regular season, De Rosario was traded to the New York Red Bulls. In June, New York traded him to D.C. United. De Rosario scored 16 goals that year, tying for first place in the MLS scoring race. He was also named league MVP. After having his contract option declined by D.C., he signed with Toronto FC and played one last season, in 2014, before retiring.
DE VOS: Did [TFC] get enough in exchange for him? No. It was a difficult time for the club. It just seemed like it was one more thing that could go wrong, and it did. There weren’t many positives for TFC during that time.
After the 2010 season, MLSE retained the services of Jürgen Klinsmann. A former World Cup winner and one of Germany’s greatest players, Klinsmann and his consulting company, Soccer Solutions, were tasked with performing a top-to-bottom audit to figure out what was wrong with Toronto FC. They were also asked to make recommendations to fix the franchise. After several weeks of review, Klinsmann proposed restructuring TFC in the mold of Ajax, the successful Amsterdam-based club famous for developing top Dutch players. One of its most successful graduates was Aron Winter, a midfielder who also starred for the Netherlands, Lazio and Inter Milan. Prior to the 2011 campaign, Winter was named TFC’s new head coach, with fellow Dutchman Bob de Klerk as his assistant. Former England and Arsenal striker Paul Mariner was named Director of Player Development.
EARL COCHRANE, former manager of team operations for TFC: The discussion internally was around the need to change the way we viewed ourselves. Jürgen sat with Tom [Anselmi] pretty regularly about how he thought things should be and how we should structure the club. He was saying a lot of the same things that we said, and had a blueprint for the kind of individuals we might want to bring in. At some point, Aron, Paul and Bob were part of that process.
JEFF BLAIR, Sportsnet columnist: Jürgen Klinsmann comes along and wants to create this organic, Canadian holistic system. What the f— is that? But Toronto FC is a sucker for everything that came along, every snake oil salesman. “This guy is German, he’s got to know what he’s doing.”
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: Everyone kind of thought, “How is that going to work?” They just hired two people [Winter and Mariner] to run the club who didn’t know each other and who were philosophically very different. It was a mistake.
TERRY DUNFIELD, former TFC midfielder: Philosophically, the way that Aron and Paul played was night and day, but there was nothing there that suggested a clash of personalities. I do think, though, there was a difference of opinion between them about the best way to manage the team and that festered over time and trickled down into the locker room.
COCHRANE: In a lot of ways, the three of them [Winter, Mariner and De Klerk] were inseparable at the beginning. Paul was targeted as the guy who was going to finalize recruitment, to bring in the guys, while Aron and Bob were going to build this strategy and structure around the club. But the growing pains in that first year were magnified by the fact that they were bringing in a new philosophy, a new style of play and a concept that was very difficult to grasp in many respects.
Winter planned to adopt Ajax’s style of play, known as “Total Football” — a technical brand of soccer in which any outfield player can theoretically take over the role of any other player on a team. The Ajax credo also meant giving young players a chance, with an eye towards building for the future.
JULIAN DE GUZMAN, former TFC midfielder: [Winter and De Klerk] wanted to start from the bottom up. Where they’re from, which is one of the richest footballing cultures in the world, they believe in academies and having a youth system. They wanted to apply that, and they only had maybe a year to do that.
DUNFIELD: Aron wanted us to play a certain way. It wasn’t about finding the best style for his players. He established his philosophy and said, “This is how we’re going to play and if you fit into the system you’re going to play, if you don’t, you’re not going to play.” It was just the quality [of players] didn’t match his system.
ASHTONE MORGAN, TFC defender: Growing up, I was maybe introduced to a different kind of culture in Canada and Toronto when it came to soccer. Definitely when Aron and his staff came over, they tried to instill in us the Dutch way. I learned a lot and I’m so happy that I got to experience that and I’ve taken a lot of strength from that time.
DE GUZMAN: I grew up learning football through the Dutch and I was also a big fan of Winter, so it was a treat to have him as my coach. But it was just very difficult for him to excel with his ideas and with what he wanted because it was such a clash of cultures, where you’re in Toronto where people want results by tomorrow. Winter was more of a long-term planner and he believed in a lot of the youth. He actually gave a lot of the youth players a chance — Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, Oscar Cordon, a lot Canadian guys. That was a positive, but again, it was tough for him to present that for the long-term because TFC and MLSE need results as soon as possible.
MORGAN: Training-wise, it was amazing. I just felt Aron and his staff really believed in their youth and they gave me that confidence that I needed to step up to the next level to earn my keep within Toronto FC and within MLS. They helped me grow as a player from the academy to the first team.
DUNFIELD: The way he wanted us to play was a very technical style. We were trying to build from out of the back. We played some great soccer — we out-possessed teams — but we didn’t have the calibre of players to execute what he wanted. We’d dominate games but all of a sudden it’d be a silly mistake or a sideways pass and we’d be one-nil down.
Even with the mid-season additions of two star players — German midfielder Torsten Frings and Dutch striker Danny Koevermans — Toronto FC stumbled to a 6-13-15 record and missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive campaign. But as bad as the 2011 season was, it was about to get worse.
MORGAN: The feeling was like everyone was walking around on eggshells. There was a lot of anxiety. It was just a very tough time for us.
DUNFIELD: We were playing quite well, but we were so unlucky. You’d watch videos back of the games and you’d think, “We’re not a million miles away.” But then another week goes by and another loss, and the pressure mounts a bit more.
COCHRANE: It was a challenging system and in some cases placed players way out of their comfort zone. You saw the ways they lost — on set pieces, late goals; stuff that most clubs practice on a pretty regular basis. Losing breeds losing, and with each loss it started to breed this feeling in the room that it was inevitable.
DUNFIELD: There were player meetings where we said, “We have to pull our finger out, give it everything and let’s turn this around.” But there was no revolt at all. The changing room was surprisingly good under those circumstances. We were still 100 per cent behind what Aron was doing. There was no mutiny or questioning his tactics or philosophy.
DE GUZMAN: A lot of the pressure, as much as it was on the coach, it was also on myself. Being in my hometown, I didn’t really like to show my face in the city. I had a condo downtown but I didn’t spend much time there — I was spending more time at my house in Aurora, away from the city and the attention. We were labeled “the worst team in the world” at one point.
Following a 3-1 loss away to D.C. United on May 19 — the club’s ninth defeat in a row to start the 2012 season — it was Koevermans who sounded off, telling reporters that TFC was “setting a record as the worst team in the world.” Instead of walking back that statement, the Dutchman stood by his words. After the team’s next practice he asked the media to “name me one team in the whole world that is 0-9.”
DUNFIELD: I was actually in the car with him driving home after he made the comments [at practice]. We lived in the Beaches [a Toronto neighbourhood] at the time, a few blocks away from each other. The thing about Koovs is he’s very blunt, very stubborn and very Dutch. He turned to me in the car and said, “Do you think that was the right thing to say?” [Laughs.] I said, “Mate, I don’t know if that was the best manoeuvre.” Then he tried to rationalize it and said “But we are the worst team in the world! No team loses nine games in a row!” I said, “Yeah, I guess you got a point there, but I don’t think that’s what the city, the players and the coaching staff need to hear right now.” He said “No, it’s fine. It’ll get brushed under the carpet.” I woke up the next morning and looked at my phone, and it was on the BBC website. It made news around the soccer world. Nice one, Koovs. No extra pressure. [Laughs.]
MORGAN: Danny’s a great guy and I’m sure that was just over some emotions, you know? That was just a tough time. I didn’t really take too much mind to it.
The losing streak ended in the next game when TFC earned a 1-0 win at home over the Philadelphia Union on May 26. It was Winter’s last match in charge — he was fired on June 7. Mariner took over coaching duties, but he didn’t fare much better. The Reds finished the 2012 season dead last in MLS with a 5-21-8 record.
DUNFIELD: [Winter] was a fantastic human being. I’d routinely go to the office, and we had great chats. He had a lot going on, and he’d talk about his real estate investments, his wines. You had to peel back a few layers but once you did, you found he was someone of real substance who had a lot going on in his life beyond soccer. Just a very interesting guy.
PAUL BEIRNE, former vice-president of business operations for TFC: Aron is an instantly likeable guy and that doesn’t diminish over time. Bringing in Bob de Klerk, who was high energy and very black-and-white — he lives and breathes football, and believes it should be played in the Ajax way — I thought the combo of Aron and Bob was going to be gold. I’m sad that it didn’t work out better. I would have liked to have seen TFC to be able to go further on that Ajax vision.
COCHRANE: Toronto is a top-three market in North America. And it’s the biggest market in this country, so the microscope you are under here is huge. That had a hand in it. Press conferences here are unlike anywhere else in our league. The amount of attention our team got was more than anywhere else in MLS. And I think that weighed on Aron.
BLAIR: Klinsmann and Winter were the final straw that you could bring someone in from Europe and it can work right away. Fans then were saying just bring us someone who knows [MLS].
NIGEL REED, CBC commentator: It was probably the darkest period in the club’s history. It was at that stage I suppose a lot of the original fans thought, “I’m not renewing anymore. They still have the wrong players. They are still hiring inexperienced coaches. We’ve still got a high turnover of players every year. We are changing the coach ever year and the people running the operation don’t know what they are doing and they don’t know how to fix it.” As a pro player nobody wants to be on a team that is a laughing stock and at that part of their history TFC certainly were.
Former Toronto mayor David Miller, a season ticket holder from Day 1, tapped into the frustration felt by a significant portion of TFC’s fan base late in the 2013 campaign when he sent a letter to MLSE that he later posted on Facebook. The club had just fired general manager Kevin Payne and was about to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year. Miller, who returned the remainder of his tickets for that season along with the letter, was tired of all the instability at the club. “Change simply has to stop — this is the last chance to get it right,” he wrote.
DAVID MILLER, former mayor of Toronto: It had to be said. The supporters from the beginning have been the core of this team. And the club had let the supporters down by constantly changing. When they brought in Kevin Payne and then fired him nine months later, it was one change too many. What TFC had had was magic, and they were risking losing it and needed to do something drastic. When I posted it on my Facebook, it got a rather unexpected, incredible response. I’ve had hundreds of people stop me in the street to say, “Thank you for saying that. That’s what I was thinking but nobody would have listened to me the way they would listen to you.” I returned all the rest of that season tickets except one set I donated to charity. I probably returned $400 or $500 worth of tickets.
Little did Miller know that serious changes were already afoot. In April, Tim Leiweke had been named president and CEO of MLSE. A heavyweight in the sports world, Leiweke helped to bring David Beckham to MLS in 2007 while at the helm of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owned the LA Galaxy. The St. Louis native took a special interest in Toronto FC, making the team a greater priority than any of his predecessors had.
TIM LEIWEKE, former president and CEO of MLSE: It was a bit of a learning curve for me because I was coming from the Galaxy where we were used to winning championships. Most considered that team to be the guiding light for Major League Soccer. I had heard and seen wonderful things out of Toronto, but obviously when I came here, the organization had kind of spun off into its own little independent island. There was a full revolt going on with the fans, and I don’t blame ’em, they were right to be upset. I came at a time when there was great distrust between the fans and management, and we clearly had not done a great job on the pitch with our talent and with our coaches. And yet that said, I think they had done an extremely good job creating a passionate fan base. We were very optimistic that we could turn it around and get it to the right place.
Using the Galaxy as a template, Leiweke wanted to immediately invest in star players who could make a difference for TFC, and he shared his vision with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.
LEIWEKE: Larry and both Bell and Rogers made it very clear that they would support us in our endeavours to make Toronto FC a world class team, including spending big money on [star players]. We had to wait a half of a season because I came half-way through . It was hard for me because I personally liked Kevin Payne. Kevin worked for me when I was at AEG, so I very much respected him. But we needed to start fresh and so at the end of the year, we let everybody go, with the exception of, I think there were two people that made it through that. It was difficult but necessary.
Leiweke sat down in the fall of 2013 with newly-hired GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Ryan Nelsen. They came up with a list of players to go after. One name stood out: Tottenham Hotspur forward Jermain Defoe.
LEIWEKE: Trying to go out and get world class players was interesting because our timing wasn’t exactly perfect. Our club wasn’t very good [laughs], so we were going through turmoil, firing people, bringing in new management. And so a lot of the world class players were looking at us like, “I don’t know about this.”
TIM BEZBATCHENKO, general manager of TFC: When I was interviewing for the GM job with Tim, he asked me off the cuff, “If money wasn’t an object who would you go after?” Knee jerk answer was [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. He kinda laughed at that but when I came in, Jermain had already been identified as a potential target [by Leiweke and Nelsen]. Then in October, Tim, Ryan and myself went over to London to meet up with Jermain. That’s when the recruitment started in earnest after speaking with Tottenham.
LEIWEKE: We had good conversations with people like Frank Lampard. We looked at a few others, but in the end we knew Jermain Defoe was going to be the kind of player that was built for Major League Soccer.
BEZBATCHENKO: I remember going to meet Jermain at a London hotel, in the lounge area of the restaurant. I wouldn’t say it was a hard sell. It was just a presentation of this is who we are and this is what we’re trying to be, and he clearly was curious right from the beginning. I don’t think it was serious, more like, “Okay, you got my attention, let’s continue to talk.”
Convincing Defoe to leave Tottenham wasn’t going to be easy. Making the Englishman one of the highest paid players in MLS was part of the game plan. But Leiweke employed other tactics as well, convincing NBA star LeBron James to talk to Defoe’s mother when she was in Toronto for a visit, and getting rap icon Drake to personally call Defoe.
LEIWEKE: We were lucky. The Cleveland Cavs were in town. [Defoe’s mother] was a fan of LeBron’s and LeBron knew Jermain and knew what we were trying to do. During a pre-game warmup, he came by and said hello to her and told her to tell Jermain hello and to come to Toronto, and that was fantastic. Drake calling Jermain and telling him to come was fantastic. Even Jermain was like, “I have some dude calling me and he’s like, ‘It’s Drake,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure, it’s Drake.’” And then he realizes, “Oh shit, it’s Drake!” [Laughs.]
At the same time, MLSE was also pursuing Michael Bradley, captain of the U.S. national team and midfielder with Italian club AS Roma. Unlike previous stars who came to MLS, these were not aging veterans in the twilights of their careers. Defoe and Bradley still had plenty of game left in their legs.
BEZBATCHENKO: We weren’t trying to break new ground, we were just trying to win games. Having [previously worked] at the league office and seeing a number of aging stars come into MLS, I felt like if you’re going to go out and spend this kind of money, let’s go out and get guys who are going to be here for a long time. Who can we get that will help us win quickly but also in the long term? Michael and Jermain fit that.
MILLER: Tim Leiweke had pretty bold goals but it allowed the team, by bringing in Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley, to forge an identity and create stability, which is really what my letter was about.
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: I remember thinking at the time, they got Jermain Defoe, and that’s the headline, but they also got Michael Bradley — and they got him in the prime of his career. This is a guy you can build your team around. I look at Michael and he has so many attributes that I really like: He’s a phenomenal athlete, a very good passer and intelligent on the pitch. He’s a player every team in MLS would love to have.
On January 13, 2014, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley were officially unveiled as Toronto FC players. Suddenly, TFC was relevant again.
MICHAEL BRADLEY, TFC midfielder and captain: I was excited to be here, because for me it was a chance to come to one of the best sports cities in North America, to a club with incredible ownership, and to a club that had so much potential. I just felt that everything was there. And so when I got here and I saw the excitement, the hype, the buzz — it didn’t surprise me one bit. It was everything I had expected, and confirmed everything I knew about what kind of sports city this was.
JONATHAN OSORIO, TFC midfielder: I was just as surprised as anyone. Getting two guys [of that calibre at that age] was a big step, not only for the club, but the league. I think the league started going in a different direction after that. Toronto FC was initiating that.
ASHTONE MORGAN, TFC defender: It was an exciting time for the city. I think it was something that they needed, some talented players — not saying we never had talented players at our club before, but definitely some well-known, world-renowned players are coming to the team. And for me to be playing alongside those players helped me out for the short-term and for the long-term.
MILLER: It was a statement for the club that they were really going to try. Bringing in one of the top strikers in the world was an incredibly strong message.
In the weeks leading up to it, MLSE launched a campaign teasing Defoe’s arrival. When the signing became official, a new commercial was cut, with the tag line: “Jermain Defoe is coming to Toronto. It’s a Bloody Big Deal.”
JAMES SHARMAN, Sportsnet commentator: That marketing campaign was overblown, but what it signified was important for that club. This was ownership taking control and saying, “We might spend our way out of this but we’re going to find a way.” They targeted Jermain Defoe, which was an inspired signing. I thought there is no way you get Jermain Defoe. He’s one of the top scorers in England.
BEZBATCHENKO: The whole [campaign] was to generate excitement about a team that had never been exciting before, and to reward the fans for their loyalty, and to signal that we were committed to the acquisition of talent who could lead us to wins.
Toronto FC got off to a strong start in 2014, winning three of its first four matches, including the season opener in Seattle. Bradley starred in the midfield for the Reds, while Defoe scored both goals in the 2-1 win over the Sounders.
BRADLEY: With a few signings and few new faces, we weren’t being treated as a team that had won only a handful of games the year before. In that first game in Seattle, against one of the best teams in the league on national TV in the States, it felt like a big occasion. And on the day, we played in a big way, and came away with a really good win.
MILLER: That game in Seattle will stick with me forever. [Defoe] was unbelievable to watch. His class was evident and it completely changed, I think, every supporter’s perspective on what might be possible.
After the game, reporters descended on TFC’s locker room eager to talk to Defoe. In England, the media does not have locker-room access. Defoe was not used to this, and was clearly uncomfortable having to change his clothes with the media just a few feet away. These cultural differences, combined with injury problems and his not getting called to play for England at the 2014 World Cup, soured Defoe on Toronto as the season progressed. He scored 11 goals in 19 matches over the 2014 MLS season. TFC cuts its losses in the off-season, moving him to Premier League club Sunderland in exchange for U.S. international forward Jozy Altidore.
BRADLEY: On the field, in terms of how he could find chances and score goals, he was incredible. But the first year was difficult for him. He never really got comfortable, in terms of how he felt, how he played, what life was like off the field. In the end, and I say this with no disrespect, if you have guys who aren’t happy here, who don’t want to be here, then it’s better they leave.
LEIWEKE: I think people forget that he had a pretty good first half of the year before he got hurt, and in fact he was actually built for Major League Soccer. He was the right player but sometimes you have to take into consideration people and their families and what makes them happy. He was homesick.
BEZBATCHENKO: Players are people. They get homesick, they have families, they have family issues. Him bringing over his extended family, that wasn’t something we had a choice about, but it certainly was something that led to him to wanting to return to England.
OSORIO: It was amazing to see Jermain do finishing drills. I think a lot of guys admired that, especially our forwards, to see how composed and how good he is in the box. He started off really well for us and a couple of injuries set him back. I think maybe the whole situation got a little bit out of hand and misunderstood. It was something that just didn’t turn out to be what both parties thought it would, that was all.
PHIL TOBIN, president of the Red Patch Boys supporters group: It definitely turned against him in the stands. I saw on a regular basis people would put black tape over the “De” and leave the “foe” on his jersey. It felt disrespectful the way he left the team.
OSORIO: He played awfully well, [and management] learned from [bringing him in] and just kept building from there and we made two other signings [Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco] that were really big and they’re all present at the club today. I just tried to learn from watching him. He was definitely a different forward from the forwards I had played with at that point. He taught certain things to look for. I started looking for different passes than I did before. It gave me a much bigger vision on the field.
Toronto FC suffered an embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to New England on Aug. 30, 2014. The next day, coach Ryan Nelsen was fired, and was replaced by Greg Vanney. TFC finished the season with a 11-15-8 record and missed the playoffs yet again.
BRADLEY: It was frustrating for sure. Disappointing. But I didn’t come expecting that it was going to be a quick fix. We knew for all of the potential and everything that was in place there was still going to be a need for time and patience and the ability to work and improve and also to find the right types of players and personalities. That didn’t mean that you weren’t trying to win every game and still get in the playoffs. But you knew at the beginning that it was going to be difficult, and it obviously was.
LEIWEKE: We knew we had holes, and we knew we had still work to do. Two guys ultimately cannot win a championship. We knew we had some work to do with our coaching, we knew we had some work to do with our development system, we knew we had some work to do with the way we drafted players. We knew we needed more character in that locker room. We understood we still had work to do, but again, you don’t win in a day.
Long before Jermain Defoe left town, TFC was hatching a plan to replace the Englishman with another high-profile star. MLSE president Tim Leiweke, TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney came up with a list of potential candidates and identified their main target: Sebastian Giovinco. Dubbed the “Atomic Ant,” the Italian forward was still in his prime, but he wasn’t playing regularly for Turin-based club Juventus in Italy’s Serie A.
TIM BEZBATCHENKO, general manager of TFC: When I sat down with Greg and we talked about which players to go after, we wanted a player who could make other players around him better. So, guys like “Seba” [Giovinco], [Dutch midfielder] Wesley Sneijder and [Costa Rican] Bryan Ruiz. [TFC director of scouting operations] Jack Dodd was in Italy in September [of 2014] and he watched Sebastian live. We had a list of two players, and he was No. 1. But those were blue-sky players. We didn’t even know if they were going to have any interest. What happened was Seba’s agent Andrea [D’Amico] talked with Corey Wray [director of team operations for TFC] at a conference in London. There was some interest from their end, and Corey and Jack called me. I set up a trip for the first week in January where I flew over solo. Andrea picked me up at the airport and we drove from Milan to Turin.
TIM LEIWEKE, former president and CEO of MLSE: We wanted a younger player, we wanted an attacking player, we wanted a colourful player, but we wanted a player who would fall in love with Toronto.
BEZBATCHENKO: We met at a trattoria that Seba and his family really liked. I was wearing jeans and a blazer, and he said, “Oh, you’re not wearing a suit,” in his limited English. He laughed and liked that. I was trying to push our vision and what we were as a club. We showed them a promotional video of the team and the city, and you could tell he was interested. They came into Toronto after that and Tim [Leiweke] was heavily involved in the final negotiations, getting it approved by the board [of MLSE] and the league.
LEIWEKE: The marketing group put together an unbelievable presentation on Toronto and what we aspired to be. They put together a beautiful brochure. There were pictures of people wearing Giovinco’s jersey and all the great cultural landmarks in Toronto. They put together a presentation that I think almost any player would have said yes to.
BEZBATCHENKO: We got him to sign on the same day as the [NCAA college] draft in 2015. I got the word from the league that Jozy was going to come to Toronto, and we had a signature from Seba when we were literally at the draft table. I remember looking at my phone, and then turning to Greg and telling him we just got final approval from the league about Seba and Jozy. So, that was a pretty good day. We’d had many bad days before that, so that was very good day. [Laughs.]
LEIWEKE: The Italian community and how they rallied around Giovinco and made him feel at home and helped recruit him, and then once he got here, adopted him and his family and putting their arms around him — that’s the uniqueness of Toronto.
In 2015, Giovinco had one of the best seasons in MLS history. He scored 22 goals, tying for the league lead, and was named MLS MVP. The Reds also made the playoffs for the first time, but were embarrassed in a 3-0 defeat away to the Montreal Impact. Despite the loss, and Leiweke’s unrelated decision to step down as MLSE president, TFC was finally on the right course.
JAMES SHARMAN, Sportsnet commentator: [Giovinco is] a legitimate superstar. He’s arguably the best player to ever play in MLS. He makes the club relevant and legitimate in football’s global culture, not just North America.
LARRY TANENBAUM, chairman of MLSE: You would be hard pressed to find someone who knows MLS better than Tim Leiweke. There’s no question that he brought a new vision and energy for TFC and that he played an important role in the success the team has enjoyed the past few years.
DOUG MCINTYRE, ESPN.com reporter: When Tim Leiweke came, that raised a lot of eyebrows south of the border because of his track record of success with the Galaxy. He lured David Beckham to MLS in an amazingly audacious move and that changed the league forever. When he came in, there was this thought that if anybody can turn this thing around it’s going to be Leiweke.
After the playoff loss in Montreal, newly hired club president Bill Manning kept the faith with Vanney and Bezbatchenko. Management also made a point of strengthening the team defensively in the off-season after conceding a league-high 58 goals.
TANENBAUM: Bill Manning saw promising young front office leaders with Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney and recognized that this club needed stability with its personnel. Soccer is so different from other sports in terms of management, and MLS is very distinct from other soccer leagues. I think TFC got it right and made the playoffs when the club focused on a front office with MLS experience.
GREG VANNEY, head coach of TFC: [The playoff loss in Montreal] was an exclamation point on a season that we didn’t defend great. It led us [to the conclusion] that we needed to go find some stability in our back line. We started our pre-season talking about how were going to defend as a group, and we were going to get everybody, from our forwards to our back line, to commit to this project of “we’re going to be difficult to play against and we’re going to protect our goal and we’re going to be a good-defending team first and foremost, priority one.”
MICHAEL BRADLEY, TFC midfielder and captain: It would have been so easy after that disappointing 2014 for [management] to say “We spent a lot of money, it didn’t work and one guy wants to leave, so we’re going to let him leave and cut our losses and choose a new strategy.” And they didn’t. They turned around and said “We’re going again.”
SEBASTIAN GIOVINCO, TFC forward: I don’t think about the past, I think about the future. That was the first game in playoff history for TFC, and I think the next year was better for Toronto and especially for the team.
BRADLEY: We were all very excited and very proud [to make the playoffs in 2015]. We knew how important it was for the city. But when you win your final regular-season game on a Sunday and lose a play-in game on a Wednesday or Thursday, it doesn’t feel like you were in the playoffs. It doesn’t feel like you even gave yourself a chance.
MCINTYRE: This was a team that finally had some balance, finally paid attention to some of the less glamorous areas of the field. They brought in some guys who had some real MLS experience and a proven track record of success on the defensive side of the ball. You look at a couple of the defenders they brought in, Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour — the goalkeeper, Clint Irwin. People who knew the league said “Those guys are really going to help the team.”
BRADLEY: [The playoff loss] served as motivation. It really fueled our fire in terms of wanting to give everything to get back there. We gave away so many goals. We had to be a team that was hard to play against and competed — and could win games by not giving away goals.
Due to renovations at BMO Field, TFC kicked off the 2016 regular season with eight consecutive road games. Injuries to key starters such as Altidore (in May) and Giovinco (late in the season) combined with national team call-ups to test the team’s depth and resolve. But the Reds challenged for first-place overall.
VANNEY: We started to create an identity over those first eight games that we were going to be a tough team to play against. Everyone knew we had offensive power. It was just, “Man, if this team locks down defensively, we’re going to be difficult to beat.” We didn’t attack very well in those first eight games; we didn’t have the ball very much. But [opponents] couldn’t figure out how to break us down, and we became a balanced, attacking side over time.
JOZY ALTIDORE, TFC forward: This was a place that was so used to negativity and no expectations. The job was to turn that upside down; that’s not an easy job.
BRADLEY: And all of a sudden around the midway point of the season, we felt like things were coming together in a really good way. We were starting to really understand who we were. Guys were physically — and health-wise — starting to come into top form. We felt like when push came to shove, we were going to be a team nobody wants to play against.
JONATHAN OSORIO, TFC midfielder: I think it was the end of the summer, when we hit our stride, that we started to see the city really coming behind us. I’m not even talking about our supporters because our supporters are always there, but just sports fans in Toronto, in general, started to follow us and really be supportive.
Giovinco sat out five games with a quad and abductor strain before coming back late in the season.
GIOVINCO: It was very difficult because never in my career have I stayed out more than two months. That was the biggest injury I’ve had. For a comeback, it was hard.
TFC ended up finishing third in the Eastern Conference, and clinched home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs, where they earned a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union on Oct. 6.
VANNEY: If we could get through that game, we firmly believed we were going to get to the final and would have a real chance. I really do believe it set us up for a good run because it let us get the monkey off our back.
ALTIDORE: That first game against Philly, I made sure I brought it, because [in the playoff loss to Montreal in 2015] we didn’t leave it all out on the field. I went out there with the feeling of, “Man, I’m not going to have another off-season where I’m thinking about what could have been.” I think that attitude was throughout the team, and that was the difference. We were unbeatable that night.
Next up was a two-legged affair in the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York City FC. TFC needed two late goals, from Altidore and Canadian Tosaint Ricketts, to win 2-0 in the opener at home on Oct. 30. The result still very much hung in the balance the following week at Yankee Stadium. Any nerves quickly passed when Giovinco scored in the sixth minute. The Italian went on to net a hat trick, and Altidore and Osorio also found the back of the net in the 5-0 win.
VANNEY: I go back and watch that game as much as any because I thought we were that good. The guys never let off.
BRADLEY: Over the course of two games just the complete domination, in terms of the way we played, the way we pressed, the way we defended, the way we were good in front of our attacking goal — across the board they were two very complete performances.
ALTIDORE: I felt confident going into [Yankee Stadium]. Just being able to stifle them like we did in the first 80 minutes of that first leg until we got the breakthrough, that stuck out for me. Defensively, we were so solid, we were so focused and intense. That was probably some of the best soccer we’ve played.
GIOVINCO: We worked as a whole team. It wasn’t only my good job; it was a good job for the whole team.
DAVID MILLER, former mayor of Toronto: The TFC supporters were in amazing form. At times in that game, you couldn’t hear anything from the New York City fans, just us. Some of the [New York] fans near us left after the third goal and immediately 400 or 500 people started singing, just instinctively, “Why are you leaving, is this a fire drill?” Seeing us come out so well against world-class players like [Andrea] Pirlo and [Frank] Lampard and David Villa — the game was magic.
The Montreal Impact awaited in the Eastern Conference final, where the winner of the two-game playoff would become the first Canadian team in league history to advance to the MLS Cup final. Just over 61,000 spectators jammed into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for the first leg on Nov. 22. In an embarrassing gaffe, kickoff was delayed 30 minutes after the referee noticed that the lines of both penalty boxes were incorrectly painted.
BEZBATCHENKO: The whole thing was surreal. You’re in the playoffs, you’re in the Big O, the place is full, and then you’re forced to sit and wait. After what happened against them the previous year, this just can’t be good. A lot of questions went through my mind. Did they do this intentionally? How could the league not have sent someone earlier to check it?
VANNEY: If I’m being honest, when it was delayed, I was concerned. My concern was where our mindset would be because we have veteran guys who are very, very preparation tedious. This threw that off.
ALTIDORE: It was what it was. In professional sports, you have to be ready for anything.
When the game eventually kicked off, the Impact swarmed the Reds, scoring twice in the opening 12 minutes, and adding a third early in the second half. But TFC fought back valiantly, with Bradley and Altidore notching goals in the 3-2 loss.
VANNEY: I sat there as they scored one and then another and then another, and I thought to myself, “Really, we’re going to do this again?” They came out ready to go, our team was a little bit flat. But I had peace of mind in that this was a long series, it was one goal at a time, and we know that we can score goals.
GIOVINCO: Well, I think it was good because we were down 3-0 and we had a good response in the second half. 3-0 is difficult. 3-2 is easier to play in Toronto.
Eight days later, 36,000 fans jammed into BMO Field for the decisive second leg.
BEZBATCHENKO: I knew it was going to be historic. After seeing what happened with New York and Philly, I knew this was going to be one for the ages.
Former TFC forward Dominic Oduro opened the scoring in the 24th minute, giving the Impact a 4-2 aggregate lead.
VANNEY: We gave up the first goal against the run of play and it was a bit of a punch in the stomach for everybody. I don’t necessarily listen to the crowd but all of sudden the crowd started chanting “T-F-C,” and I remember that moment, saying to myself, “Okay, we need this now.”
BRADLEY: How easy would it have been for the stadium to go quiet? In so many stadiums across the world, it would have gone quiet.
VANNEY: Slowly, but surely the momentum turned.
Armando Cooper and Altidore scored for Toronto just before halftime, but Ignacio Piatti replied for Montreal in the 53rd minute. With the Impact leading 5-4 on aggregate, the Reds needed another goal to force extra time. Defender Nick Hagglund found the back of the net in the 68th minute, and Benoit Cheyrou and Ricketts scored two minutes apart in the first extra time period. TFC held on for a 5-2 win (7-5 on aggregate), to clinch a berth in the MLS Cup final.
PATRICE BERNIER, Montreal Impact captain: I didn’t think it was over when we were up 3-0, because you know that there’s a second leg. I think we fell asleep mentally in the first leg and let them come back and score those two goals. Toronto has a fighting spirit also, and it wasn’t easy going there with a 3-2 lead.
OSORIO: I’d say that series was more entertaining for the fans than for us. I was kind of stressed because going down 3-0 is not easy and you have to have a lot of character to come back from that. We got those two away goals in Montreal, which I think was the turning point of the whole series, and that game at home was one of the best games ever played, I think, in MLS. Honestly, I would rather have beat them comfortably, but that was a much sweeter feeling to win at the end of everything.
BERNIER: When I look at it — not just for Canadian soccer, but also for MLS — it’s one of the better series we’ve had in the past few years. You had the emotions, you had the goals, and you had the attendance. But I’m also going to remember that we didn’t win it, and we were good enough to go to the final — and maybe good enough to win it.
DANNY DICHIO, Sportsnet analyst and former TFC forward: At the final whistle, I was jumping around with my sons. I had a real tear in my eye. For me, that was my MLS Cup final.
By virtue of its superior record during the regular season, Toronto earned the right to host the MLS Cup final against the Western Conference champion Seattle Sounders at BMO Field on December 10.
VANNEY: We got off to a pretty good start, and Jozy had a few chances really early. Seba had one too early on. I knew it was going to be a stingy game in terms of goals and chances.
The two sides battled to a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes of regulation. In extra time, Giovinco had to be subbed out due to injury.
GIOVINCO: I had an injury in the 70th minute. I tried to play more than possible for me. But I have to go out, because playing with one player less is difficult. In the finals, I don’t like to go out in the game.
The moment of the game came in the 108th minute when Ricketts, who came on for Giovinco, broke down the right and delivered a dangerous cross into the box for Altidore, who connected on a header that was destined for the back of the net. Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, a former TFC player, scrambled and somehow reached back behind him to clear the ball away with a highlight-reel save.
ALTIDORE: I knew there really wasn’t anybody behind me so I just tried to get something on it. I didn’t feel like I could make a play on it 100 per cent. Looking back on it, he made a great save.
VANNEY: The first thing I thought was that it was going to go over the crossbar. I didn’t understand the depth of where Jozy was to the trajectory of the ball. But then when I started to see it drop, I said, “Oh wow, this is going in.” I didn’t think [Frei] could get back to it. I’ve not seen Stef be quite that mobile, that catlike in terms of making saves. The next thing you know he pulled it out, almost behind him with his fingertips. I just grabbed my head and I knew that we were getting to a point where chances were going to start drying up. He made a great save.
It was 0-0 after 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. In the ensuing penalty shootout, the teams were tied until Seattle’s Roman Torres whipped his shot past Toronto goalkeeper Clint Irwin, sending BMO Field into a stunned silenced. Even though the Sounders were largely outplayed for most of the game, they hoisted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
BEZBATCHENKO: That’s football. Period. No bitterness. I was really numb.
VANNEY: I was numb because I felt like we let the city and fans down. I felt like the we were the better team, that we pushed the game, that we went out to win it, and they played for the shootout. But we didn’t make some of the key plays that are necessary in big games to win the trophy.
BRADLEY: Total disappointment. “Numb” is probably the best word.
MORGAN: It’s football, you know? Anything can happen no matter what two teams are playing. It’s still a little bitter with us, but the good thing is we have another game, another season, another chance to get back there.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, TFC was applauded off the field. There was no question the magical season helped the team engrave its place in the city’s sporting landscape.
VANNEY: It’s the fourth time I’ve been to the final [as a player and coach], the third time I’ve lost in overtime. They all hurt but that one hurt more.
OSORIO: It was an amazing experience. It felt like we were the main team in Toronto. To be the closest to winning a big trophy for the city was a good feeling. The whole city gets behind you and, honestly, everything about life just becomes better.
MORGAN: In the last two years, we’ve created a great culture within the club and within the city. You could feel the energy from us on the field to everybody in our stadium, the city — it was just an amazing, ecstatic feeling. Especially for me, being from Toronto, I was so happy to see the footballing side of the city doing so well.
STEPHEN BRUNT, Sportsnet columnist: I guess that’s what I like about [TFC]. You get some bandwagon people, but by and large their audience is the real deal. They have millions of reasons to be cynical and they never surrendered.
SHARMAN: [TFC] has gone from novelty to legitimate sporting brand in this city.
JASON DE VOS, former Canadian national team captain and TSN analyst: You could argue that for the first 10 years, the league was just about survival. Now it’s in a position where it’s healthy and Toronto FC are certainly one of the model franchises.
MILLER: Sometimes the history of TFC is written as a sequence of dire failures. That’s not true at all. There were magical moments for every supporter in virtually every year. But there was nothing like last year. After being there for 10 years, including through some pretty dire moments, to have that run was magical.
*Additional interviews for this project were conducted by Naoko Asano, Donnovan Bennett, Ryan Dixon, Steven Loung, Dan Robson, Kristina Rutherford, Emily Sadler and David Singh.*
Big Read: Nolan Patrick's unconventional road to the NHL Draft
Nolan Patrick’s draft year has been far from the standard for an elite NHL prospect. But that won’t stop the Brandon Wheat Kings star from going first overall in June’s draft.