How Toronto FC Overcame The Odds To Win The Treble
When international soccer fans think of Major League Soccer, they tend to picture an exclusively American competition. Yet Canada has played a significant role in the division’s development over the last 15 years.
There are currently three MLS teams based north of the border: Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montreal and Toronto FC. Those clubs play in stadiums with a combined capacity of around 72,000, and have played their part in youth development, with Alphonso Davies – the star of the Canada national team – having plied his trade for Vancouver Whitecaps before his move to Bayern Munich. The popularity of soccer in the Great White North is only moving in one direction.
Toronto FC were the first Canadian side to enter MLS. They joined the league in 2007 and finished bottom of the seven-team Eastern Conference in their debut campaign, with just six wins in 30 matches. That did not come as a surprise, since Toronto were playing catch-up from the start and competing against clubs with much more experience than them. What did come as a surprise, though, was their stunning treble a decade later.
Toronto had made steady progress in the intervening 10 years. They again finished bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2008, but amassed a much healthier points tally that year. The following season saw Toronto finish just one point shy of the play-off positions, before a difficult period in which the club seemed to take two steps back for every one step forward.
Toronto qualified for the play-offs for the first time in 2015, but they were soundly beaten by Montreal Impact in the first round. Vancouver Whitecaps, who had finished third in the regular season, also progressed to the Conference semi-finals alongside Montreal. At that point Toronto were arguably only the third-best Canadian team in MLS.
Yet in comparison with major European competitions like the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, MLS is a great deal more competitive, thanks in large part to the draft system and league-wide salary cap. It is not uncommon for a team to finish near the bottom of the standings one season and near the top of them 12 months later. Thirteen different sides have won MLS Cup in a total of 25 campaigns. And in 2017 it was Toronto’s turn to lift the trophy.
The Reds had gone close the previous season. A third-place finish in the Eastern Conference brought a play-off spot, where Toronto beat Philadelphia Union 3-1, thrashed New York City 7-0 on aggregate and then edged out fellow Canadians Montreal Impact 7-5 over two legs. That sent Toronto through to the final, where a 0-0 draw after extra time was followed by a 5-4 penalty shoot-out defeat by Seattle Sounders.
Toronto were clearly moving in the right direction, but there was a feeling after that loss that they might have missed their chance. They had faded in the regular season in 2016, before coming on strong again in the play-offs. New York Red Bulls, New York City, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders all had designs on MLS Cup, while Atlanta United were hoping to make a splash in their first ever season in the league. Toronto were clearly in the mix, but the prevailing view was that they would not get as close as being a penalty shoot-out away from winning the biggest prize in MLS.
In hindsight, perhaps Greg Vanney’s team were being underrated in the pre-season previews. Vanney had proven to be an astute head coach and was going into his third full season at the helm at BMO Field. “I think we need to change the energy, be more aggressive, be potentially less careful about making mistakes and looking to be more aggressive,” he had said upon taking charge, and the team’s achievements in 2016 evidenced his influence on the team.
Toronto went into the 2017 season with one of the strongest squads in the division. Jozy Altidore had flopped in the Premier League but was an outstanding striker at MLS level. Sebastian Giovinco had been magnificent in his first two seasons in North America, with Michael Bradley among the most impressive midfielders in MLS. Victor Vazquez was an exciting signing from Cruz Azul, while there was Canadian talent in the ranks too: Raheem Edwards and Tosaint Ricketts would become regular first-teamers in 2017, and only Bradley and Vazquez made more appearances than the Toronto-born Jonathan Osorio.
The arrival of Vazquez, a product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, was key. The Spaniard provided Toronto with the midfield creativity they had lacked, and it did not take long for him to successfully link up with the likes of Bradley and Giovinco. The diminutive Italian was now able to remain almost exclusively in the final third, rather than dropping deep to help build moves. Vanney’s shift to a 3-5-2 formation brought out the best in Jozy Altidore, with Giovinco instructed to stay close to the centre-forward.
All this came later, though. Toronto actually got off to a sticky start, winning only one of their first six fixtures. But the team started to click thereafter, and a 3-1 victory over Colorado Rapids kick-started a run of six successive wins. The Reds endured another slight dip in July, but defeats were still relatively rare; Toronto tied several games but were beaten only five times all season.
By that point the club had already won its first trophy of the season, defeating Montreal Impact 3-2 on aggregate to win the Canadian Championship in June. It is tempting to believe that this set them on the path to future success, but Toronto had also lifted the trophy in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016 without ever going on to scoop silverware in MLS.
This time would be different. Another six-game winning streak in August and September saw Toronto open up a significant gap at the top of both the Eastern Conference and overall tables. Back-to-back defeats by Montreal Impact and New England Revolution only delayed the inevitable, and on September 30 a 4-2 triumph over New York Red Bulls brought Toronto the Supporters’ Shield. By the end of the campaign they had set a new MLS record points tally with 69.
Toronto were not about to pat themselves on the back, though. Vanney and his players had the MLS Cup in their sights – and they did not disappoint. Away goals saw them through by the narrowest of margins against New York Red Bulls in the Conference semis, before Toronto squeezed past Columbus Crew 1-0 on aggregate. That set up a highly anticipated final with Seattle Sounders, the side who had got the better of them the previous season.
There would be no penalty shoot-out this time. Altidore gave Toronto the lead in the 67th minute with his 18th goal of the season (only Giovinco, with 20, got more), and Vazquez made it 2-0 into second-half stoppage time. Just 10 years on from their MLS debut, Toronto were the first North American team to win a treble and the first MLS Cup winners from Canada. Not even the most ardent supporters of Montreal Impact or Vancouver Whitecaps could say they did not deserve it.
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