TORONTO — Here’s a neat little talking point we haven’t been able to run out for a generation or so in this city. See, we’ve started to do this thing in Toronto where we debate–civilly, of course–which of our city’s sports teams will be the first to win a title: the Raptors, Blue Jays, Maple Leafs or Toronto FC.
The Argonauts? Yeah, they were once the conversation stopper, the answer nobody much wanted to hear. They were the fun-suckers, the team that took the wind out of the debate because–really–how hard is it to win a title in a nine- or eight-team league? Law of averages, and all that.
It is, of course, easier to win a Grey Cup than any of these other titles. Or, at least it ought to be. The NBA is the toughest, unless you have one of the three or four players in the league whose preferential treatment by officials is multiplied many-fold during the playoffs–a commodity which the Raptors, alas, don’t possess. Some place in-between is the World Series (lots of competitive balance plus the wear and tear of 162 games and the predominance of the single-most valuable yet delicate season-killing commodity in sports: the pitcher’s elbow tendon) and the Stanley Cup, with its long, brutal, post-season death march.
TFC has come closest, losing on penalties in the MLS Cup last season, and so they we were on a rainy, windy night by the lake celebrating the opening of the 2017 home schedule Friday night against the backdrop of what is already the most memorable Leafs season in years, the Raptors annual playoff appearance, and Opening Day for a Blue Jays team that has gone to back-to-back American League Championship Series.
Not everything has changed. If it’s a TFC home match, it must be raining biblically, and if it’s Sporting Kansas City as the opponent, they will press you and then sit back and wait for the counter-attack and then press again because that’s what they do and a point won’t come easy. In fact, the Reds’ scoreless draw with Sporting in front of 27,909 fans at BMO Field ran the visitor’s streak of games without a defeat against TFC to eight, six of those wins.
Look: Jonathan Osorio still looks like a guy juggling knives when he has a little time to think in front of the opponents goal. “Still a little bit frantic,” is how his head coach, Greg Vanney, described him after three misses. Just a bit. But something feels different. Perhaps it’s the fact that the trip to the MLS Cup in the first season this splendid stadium was shared with the Argonauts has reinforced the notion that BMO Field is first and foremost a soccer stadium, regardless of how many outdoor hockey games or Grey Cups or whatever else they hold here. The football team–the CFL team that is–is a tenant. An interloper. TFC and its fans are the soul of the place, the proprietors. It is their house, their place to let off smoke bombs and bring banners and bang drums and stomp their feet. It’s their place to sing the national anthem so loudly that the anthem singer can just hold up her microphone and guide them, like some school music teacher.
The Reds started Toronto native Raheem Edwards on Friday night, giving him a full 90 minutes on the outside because of a heel injury to Justin Morrow. It was Edwards’ first MLS start and he found himself matched against Graham Zusi, a nine-year MLS veteran and four-time All-Star with 45 U.S. caps who was forced to play right back due to injury. Edwards was a going concern on a night when Vanney elected to leave the U.S. international Jozy Altidore and Panamanian Armando Cooper on the bench because of their duties in the recently-concluded international break. Vanney was impressed, noting Edwards’ willingness to pass into the box, only chiding the 22-year-old gently for perhaps not being more aggressive going to goal.
“A decent job,” is how Edwards described his night, adding that if you impress your coach “you did something well.” Edwards is a product of the TFC Academy, and admitted that standing on the pitch during the playing of the anthem gave him “goosebumps.” He was, after all, one of those people at one time. “I can remember being there, singing,” he said.
One of them. One of their own.
The Reds start to the 2017 season hasn’t been spectacular, but it has been workmanlike and thoroughly professional. The results have been explicable, like Friday’s draw which owed to a lack of discipline in attacking shape–too much ball-chasing, in other words–and difficulty passing out of the Sporting press. That’s okay. That will come. When Altidore was finally introduced into the game, he and Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez started to play off each other. The Reds and Vazquez haven’t yet felt each other out, and the first match back after an international break is a dodgy proposition to begin with when you have so many of what Vanney referred to as “big personalities.” Translation: lots of good players who are counted upon by their national teams.
For many, the third clean sheet is what counts, for a franchise that used to make a habit of giving away late goals. That hints of a grownup team, a club with a strong sense of self and the belief that can only come from going to a title game with the guy on your left, the guy on your right and the guy across the room. TFC doesn’t have to apologize or worry about its place in this city’s sports landscape any more. TFC doesn’t have to worry about being swamped by this outbreak of success all around it. TFC hasn’t “done it” and neither has anybody else in this city. But TFC has been there. They’ve laid their marker, enforced pre-eminent domain over BMO Field, and can say with some pride that even in these best of times for Toronto sports, they are the only team that has a shot at going to back to back league finals. That has to count for something in this market, no?