Shimmering, distant mirage coming into focus for Toronto FC

James Sharman and Irfaan Gaffar breakdown the second leg of the conference semifinals between Toronto FC vs New York City FC and Montreal Impact vs NY Red Bulls.

TORONTO – Don’t feel bad. You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Toronto FC is actually in the playoffs for the second time. That the most inept franchise in the history of Major League Soccer broke their post-season draught a year ago.

What, you missed it? Fair enough. It lasted for about 20 minutes and took place in Montreal.

A summary:

They lost their final two regular-season games to slide into the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference (two wins would have earned them second place and a first-round bye) and so they played a sudden-death Wild Card game on the road in Montreal. They were down 3-0 in the amount of time it takes to order and drink a latte, and that was it. On a cold night in Montreal the franchise that constantly trips over its feet achieved what seemed impossible, even for them: their first playoff appearance in nine years came and went before anyone but dogged hard-core fans even noticed. The hype machine hadn’t even turned over, let alone shifted from neutral. After nearly a decade of suffering through embarrassment upon embarrassment, TFC made the playoffs but didn’t even get to enjoy a home game.

“I think last year it felt like we were half-pregnant,” says TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “We went to Montreal and it didn’t really happen. It left everyone wanting more. We weren’t satisfied.”

A year later and the situation couldn’t be more different. TFC is about to have a big, beautiful playoff baby. A year later and it appears that former MLSE shaman Tim Leiweke’s peyote fueled vision for what soccer could be in Toronto is coming into view; a shimmering, distant mirage that’s coming into focus.

This year TFC was in the Wild Card game again, but hosted it. The quick turn-around following the end of the regular season meant it still snuck up on people but at least those that have been waiting patiently for all those years could bundle up at BMO Field and watch a playoff game. The Reds won handily. Then came the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals and the energy swell was palpable. A crowd of 29,000 on a cold Sunday night doing a passable impression of a Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford.

And the team that so often hasn’t been able to get out of its way delivered an almost cinematic result, with the winner coming in the 84th minute and an essential insurance marker in extra time for a 2-0 win over New York City FC.

“We’re lucky. We have incredible support,” says TFC’s no-nonsense captain Michael Bradley. “This is an unbelievable sports city but in the last 10 days or two weeks it’s been cranked up a few notches that I didn’t even know was there. The amount of texts and messages I’ve gotten from people I know, friends, other guys around the league, in Europe who are watching our games on TV at the moment and going, basically: ‘Where are you guys playing, what stadium is that?’ They’re in disbelief about the atmosphere we have and the advantage the fans in this city are giving at the moment. It’s special.”

It doesn’t mean that TFC is a lock to get to the Eastern Conference finals, but they are in a fantastic position heading into the second leg of the two-game aggregate on Sunday at Yankee Stadium – they can advance with a win, draw or any two goal loss as long as they score one goal. Even if they lose 2-0 they would earn a second-life in extra time.

Finish that bit of business and TFC’s playoff window will remain open for a few more weeks at least. Finish that and the team that has broken so many hearts and slipped on so many banana peels will be one series away from playing for the MLS Cup.

Seemingly out of nowhere TFC has suddenly become the team best positioned to end Toronto’s championship drought – with apologies to the Argonauts and the Toronto Rock, who have won titles since the Blue Jays last won a World Series.

Bradley was on the stage at Real Sports when since departed MLSE president Leiweke introduced the ‘Bloody Big Deal’ era prior to the 2014 season and uttered a thought that seemed foreign in Toronto given recent sports history. “Why can’t we be great?”

It fell apart, of course. Jermain Defoe got homesick. TFC was labeled a money-bags club with no substance. Leiweke left.

But behind the scenes things were actually taking shape. The club had a world-class training ground. Defoe was replaced with Sebastian Giovinco, the closest thing MLS has to Lionel Messi. Veteran depth was added and youth was groomed. The wonkish Bezbatchenko points out that for the first time in franchise history their starting 11 averaged at least four years of MLS experience and at least one year with TFC.

A lot of those elements were coming together a year ago but the blink-of-an-eye playoff appearance in Montreal made it hard to appreciate.

This year at the very least there is time to hold the TFC playoff baby to the light, coo at it and wonder: could this grow into something special?

“The reality is this: There are a lot of us who have felt good for a long time about where things are going,” Bradley says. “You and I spoke on the phone at the end of my first season here and even then when on the outside there wouldn’t have been much room for optimism I still understood that if things continued to improve, if we can make the right moves there was going to be good potential to take this where we all wanted to.

“[But] the reality is until you get to this point, until you live it, until you have a little something to show for yourself when the lights come on, it’s hard for people on the outside to really believe in it. Hopefully the last 10 days are a little bit of validation for the club … so hopefully everybody can look and see what’s going on and understand that we’re continuing to grow.”

It’s not an original message, but it’s delivered with conviction.

“[He] has that look in his eyes right now,” says veteran TFC defender Drew Moor.

Bradley is preaching promise and hope and better things to come. It’s the oldest message in sports, the thin gruel the Chicago Cubs have been serving for more than a century until last night, and so long on tap here in Toronto.

But when Bradley speaks you can’t help but listen. And for the first time in their history TFC fans can safely to believe.


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