The first Major League Soccer championship for Toronto FC was born the second they lost last year’s MLS Cup to the Seattle Sounders on penalty kicks on Dec. 10, 2016.
That loss, in which they did not allow the Sounders a shot on goal for 120 minutes of regulation and overtime, drove the Reds every step of the way to the greatest season in MLS history, ending 364 days later with a 2-0 win Saturday at BMO Field over the Sounders. This time, the Reds forced the game to be played on their terms, their way.
They came out with a relentless attack that was at first turned aside by the brilliant play of Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who played for Toronto in the bad old days when they were the laughingstock of MLS. But TFC eventually broke through in the 67th minute with Jozy Altidore providing the winning goal for the second playoff game in a row.
The motivation for that win was clear to everyone on the pitch yesterday, from the sellout crowd of 30,584 to the Sounders players and coaches.
“If you look at Toronto’s year, the start of the year was the loss in the 2016 MLS Cup,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “You could tell that was a motivated franchise, a motivated coach, a motivated team. Their success throughout the year, I believe, was fueled by the loss last year.”
Along the way to the first MLS Cup, also the first MLS Cup won by a Canadian MLS team, the Reds also set a record for most points in the regular season with 69. That brought them the Supporters’ Shield for finishing first in the regular season and they also won the Canadian club championship to become the first MLS team to win the treble – an MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and national club title.
Motivated does not even begin to describe it, according to TFC captain Michael Bradley, whose work in the midfield, blunting the Sounders attack and setting up the TFC offence, should have resulted in being named the championship’s most-valuable player. Then again, TFC striker Sebastian Giovinco could also have taken the award for his work creating scoring chances and setting up the winning goal for Altidore, who was the actual MVP.
“Lifting this trophy has been an obsession for the last 364 days,” Bradley said. “Not just for me but for every single guy on our team, every coach, every part of the staff. From the second [Román] Torres scored the winning penalty last year to get ourselves back here, to get ourselves another crack at it, honestly there’s no other word for it than obsession.
“It’s hard to describe to people on the outside what it’s been like to live that every day. To live that in the beginning of pre-season when it feels you are years away from a game, let alone a playoff game and a final.”
An MLS season is like no other sport’s year, a meandering ride that starts in March and drags through the summer and fall with several two-week breaks for national-team play thrown in. But Bradley said no one’s dedication to winning each of the three titles, especially the MLS Cup, wavered.
“The group was so focused,” he said. “With this team it was incredible. There was never one moment I looked around and felt guys were losing focus about what we were trying to do.
“This week, people wanted to talk about how all the pressure was on us. Seattle had been playing very well, we hadn’t, all that type of stuff. To play the game we did, to play the way we did with everything on the line, it’s incredible. I’m so proud to be part of this group. This is what it’s all about, lifting trophies.”
During the first half, though, there was much doubt about that even though TFC controlled the play. Reds head coach Greg Vanney switched from the customary 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-2 diamond in order to exploit Seattle’s defence.
TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio was used instead of defender Eriq Zavaleta and Bradley was given added responsibilities in front of the defence. Both players responded brilliantly, while Giovinco, Altidore and midfielder Victor Vazquez were stymied only by Frei’s brilliance. He made six saves in the first half.
Schmetzer said the new formation did not disrupt his team, although the Sounders defence looked slow and was hardly ever first to the ball. The coach himself pointed out the Reds won 33 duels to Seattle’s 10, all in the first half.
While the Sounders were relieved to get to the half with the score tied 0-0 and hoped to slow the pace in the second, the Reds offered no relief. They kept pressing and in the 67th minute, Bradley set a rush in motion that saw the ball quickly relayed up to Giovinco, who dropped a perfect pass between two Seattle defenders for a breakaway goal by Altidore.
“That was one of our big statements this week, to be bold,” said Vanney, who told his players at the half to keep the pedal to the metal. “Nobody wins anything being afraid. Go out and be bold.
“The ball kept going, the guys kept attacking. We had them against the ropes, we felt, and we were able to keep that going in the second half until finally [Giovinco and Altidore] connect for a pretty special goal.”
But Vanney did not allow himself to let go until the fourth minute of extra time when Vazquez scored on a rebound off the post. It was his first MLS title, too, after losing two as a player and last year’s as a coach. So he looked skyward, up to where he was sure his biggest fan was watching.
“Even with that first goal I was still like everybody, a little on edge,” he said. “That second goal for me was the first time my emotions came out a little.
“I looked up to the sky because, as most of you are aware, I lost my mother this year and she would have been really proud. I lost this game four times prior to [Saturday] and she was a witness to all of them.”