When they announced this team in 2006 most were skeptical this would ever happen. TFC became the fifth expansion team to win an MLS Cup, doing it in their 11th season. But the day was a testament to not only the strength of the side but also its supporters. A full two hours before the game the team bus was greeted by fans partying in the cold. By the time the pre-match ceremonies rolled around it was standing room only. The scene was so picturesque that even GM Tim Bezbatchenko took out his phone to snap a photo as he watched from his seat beside club president Bill Manning in a box high above field level.
When it came out via social media that coach Greg Vanney was departing from TFC’s trusty 3-5-2, many fans who had assembled at BMO field were nervous. With Toronto defender Eriq Zavaleta in a back three, TFC was undefeated in the regular season, so it was a surprise to see him take a disappointed seat on the substitutes’ bench. You knew it was a big match when the supporters were talking tactics, not taunts, as they filed in to the stadium. The 4-4-2 diamond the team started in allowed Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco to get wide while providing Vazquez room in the middle of the park. But you could sense apprehension early as with every missed chance there were gasps and biting of nails. Despite the fact TFC had the balance of the chances there was a sense of skepticism that a breakthrough would ever come. Which is understandable considering Seattle had a clean sheet in 12 of its last 18 matches coming in.
Toronto defended brilliantly, only fouling three times throughout the game. Nicolas Lodeiro, Victor Rodriguez and Clint Dempsey never had time and space. Dempsey especially was constantly hounded. TFC defenders constantly had a head on a swivel looking for and communicating where the Sounders attacking player was at all times. Marky Delgado, Jonathon Osorio and Michael Bradley all worked their socks off in their own third to deny Dempsey service and pass him on to defenders when he tried to run in behind. As the game wore on Dempsey was forced to come higher and higher up the pitch to get on the ball, and when he did he was surrounded by two or three red shirts. Dempsey didn’t play in the 2016 MLS Cup due to injury and barely got in the game this year due to TFC’s marking.
Michael Bradley took the game by the scruff of the neck right from the opening kick. Bradley once again was the best player on the pitch, and it is a shame his name wasn’t in regular season MVP talks. At times, it is hard to justify paying a holding midfielder designated-import money but on Saturday he earned every penny, bossing the game from box to box. Bradley’s impact is hard to read on television or even high up in the stands. Many of his passes are simple. Most of his man marking goes unseen. But watching him up close at pitch level you see his true quality shine. The way his touch remains soft no matter if the ball takes a funny bounce and he’s at a full sprint. The way he goes from Tasmanian devil to composed creator in the same sequence of play is exhaustingly breathtaking. Simply put, Bradley is an eraser, cleaning up others’ mistakes and working hard so his own plays can remain simple and don’t have to be spectacular. On Saturday, he was special.
Victor Vazquez scored the first post-season goal for TFC this year and he also scored the last. But the goals during this run that will be remembered were by the limping Altidore. It’s been a trying year for Altidore. His national team didn’t make the World Cup and he’s received abusive taunts in American stadiums since. He was sent off versus the New York Red Bulls. He was suspended and then got hurt versus Columbus. But all that was forgotten when he made one of his patented runs from out wide to get on the end of a ball played in the box. First a great touch with his right foot, and then a burst of speed past Joevin Jones, the quickest player on Seattle’s roster, followed by a composed finish past Stefan Frei, who was helpless as the ball nestled in the back of the Seattle goal for the first time this post-season. Frei won the one on one battle in 2016 but Jozy had the last laugh and now etches his name in the Toronto sports lore. Altidore scored two of TFC’s three goals in the team’s last four playoff games. The American striker has the most goals in the MLS Cup playoffs since 2015 with seven, two more than the five Dempsey and Giovinco each have. Altidore was a deserving 2017 MLS Cup MVP.
Seba Sets Up
Gilberto and Jermaine Defoe are long gone. The beloved striker whom teams game plan for is now Giovinco. In an unselfish performance by the Italian, Seba used the attention paid to him to create space for others, setting up both goals. There was frustration from the forward. After Giovinco thought he was fouled in the box he laid down holding his calf refusing to get up and get back in play like a tuckered out two-year-old in the midst of a tantrum. TFC’s own supporters pleaded with him to rise back to his feet and help protect their lead. Not until Frei offered his stretching services in a scene of sportsmanship that is only found on a soccer field, did Seba get up and get on with things. The Seattle fans referred to him as the “Atomic Can’t” not by his nickname the “Atomic Ant”. Giovinco didn’t get the elusive goal from open play that has alluded him since August. But he did contribute with his play in between the lines. For his performance he won’t get headlines, just a winner’s medal.
Home is Toronto
Altidore, along with Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts, showed up to the match wearing “Home is Toronto” Peace Collective hoodies. In stature, style and commitment to the city he’s become the Anti-Defoe. When Altidore was subbed off for Nick Hagglund, “U-S-A” rained down from the stands, not something you’d often hear in Canada. These fans wouldn’t trade him for any striker in the league.
The celebration post-game was as much about the team as it was the family. The trophy became a picture-day style prop for the players to commemorate the moment with those in their lives who made the sacrifice that coincides with their success. Bradley’s son played the drum and tried to lift the trophy his captain father did. Alex Bono’s mother gasped at the sight that she had 47 text messages. Altidore made sure to get a photo with Bradley whom he referred to as “his brother” as they embraced, which ended when Bradley gave him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze around the neck.
Songs of Joy
The chant TFC fans had on repeat Saturday night? Predictably it was “Jozy Altidore, you know he’s gonna score. We’ll go wild wild, wild. We’ll go wild, wild, wild.” You expect singing from the Supporters’ section but even the rest of the stadium sang background and at times led during the match. It got so loud the fans couldn’t organize the second rendition of the famous Viking clap until the 73rd minute. When I left the stadium approximately two hours after the whistle blew for full time, the fans were still singing and in many cases still crying.
Best Team Ever
TFC became the first MLS Cup runner-up to win the next MLS Cup final since the LA Galaxy did it in 2002. They are now the seventh team in league history to win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same year, and first to do it since the Galaxy did it in in 2011. The 2017 Reds won a treble and set the record for points in a season. Of the assembled media waiting to get in the locker room to cover the champagne shower, there wasn’t much debate. With a dominant win against a team who came in playing dominant football, TFC’s 2017 squad is now considered the best MLS side ever. The Reds have gone from laughingstock to legendary.
Big Read: The Oral History of Toronto FC
The first decade of Toronto FC in the words of the players, coaches, executives and fans who built the franchise.