Toronto FC have been the favourites to win this year’s MLS cup since the very first kick on March 3, 2017. Throughout the season, the dominant display by the Reds gave every reason for confidence among their fans; breaking the points record and winning the Supporter’s Shield seemed to be a forgone conclusion with a month still to play in the regular season, and it turned out those assumptions were entirely accurate. Toronto was a force that was unparalleled in the history of Major League Soccer, rising head-and-shoulders above all other teams, winning the Voyageur’s Cup to put them on the path toward the elusive “treble”.
Now, after pushing past the storybook-team Columbus Crew, Toronto FC is on their way toward a rematch with Seattle. “Redemption” is the word of the hour, news pundits and fans alike repeating the word like a mantra. Redemption, not only for the team, but for Jozy and Michael as well. These two US National players have been (unfairly) saddled with the failure of the US team in qualifying for the World Cup. Here is an opportunity to correct those past failures and misses.
So far, so good; but the story is a little more complicated than that, as much as we Toronto fans hate to admit it.
This playoff run has not been pretty. Anyone who says otherwise is either delusional, or knows nothing about soccer. When Toronto FC faced the Red Bulls in the Conference Semi-Finals, very few expected such a close competition between the two teams. Toronto had won 4-2 in their last meeting and was fully rested and healthy. Yet, the first of the two games, held in New York, was anything but convincing. Toronto did what they needed to, coming away with a win away and two away goals. But the scoreline could have easily fell the other way. Despite this, Toronto was still the favourite going into the second leg. After all, TFC had two away goals and had only lost one game at home during the season. Victory for Toronto seemed assured; that is, until the game started. The Red Bulls were not rolling over, they fiercely took the game to the home team and played a highly physical game that increasingly frustrated the Reds. Wright-Phillips found the net in the 53rd minute, with time left to score a second and push for the Conference Finals. TFC was able to stave off defeat, winning by the closest margin possible: a one away-goal differential. It is quite literally impossible to win by a smaller margin.
Small margin or no, Toronto was on to the Conference Finals, facing off against the storybook darlings Columbus Crew who found themselves in the middle of the large #SavetheCrew movement that transcended local loyalty for soccer fans. Toronto would play the first game without their two biggest stars: Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. This should not have been a problem, since Vanney’s squad has demonstrated incredible depth throughout the 2017 season. Yet a lacklustre defensively-minded squad just barely managed to create a snooze-fest game with a nil-nil final score. Where was the firecracker team that we watched mid-season, always pushing for a goal? Remember that on April 26, this same team faced off against the same opponent and won 5-0. Oh, and did I mention they didn’t have Jozy or Seba for that game either?
To top off this playoff drive, Toronto FC snuck into the final with a 1-0 victory over the Crew that easily could have gone the other way. The Crew had a number of fantastic chances, and Alex Bono came up big on a number of occasions. Luck is not something that should ever be relied upon by championship teams; yet luck is what won the day to allow Toronto’s return to the finals this year. Sure, there were flashes of brilliance: Jozy’s goal was a beautiful moment, and Michael Bradley continued to impress defensively. Moor was a bastion at the back, keeping things solid, and Beitashour was able to stay strong despite merciless and continual attacks from the Crew down the right side. Yet, the Crew were never out of the game; not even for a moment. If it was the better team that won the Conference Final, it was only better by a hair.
Contrast this with Seattle and their run to the final. Full disclosure, I did not watch the Seattle games (I have a day job and a family, what do you want!), yet glancing at the score of the games played is enough to show that Seattle has had little trouble finishing their opponents. 2-0 on aggregate against Seattle, and 5-0 on aggregate against Houston. Of course, it is fairly safe to say that the East is stronger than the West this year, but it is still pretty clear that Seattle is in good playoff form, and TFC is not.
All of this is not to say I don’t believe Toronto can take the cup and win the treble. Yet, fans and spectators should know that it is far from a guarantee. I suspect that the pressure on the team, their continual presence as the favourites this year, as well as the closeness of legendary achievements has had an impact on the players’ emotions, and soccer is nothing if not an emotional game.
I am not brave enough to make a scoreline prediction for the final; but I will predict a tense match. Another finish with penalties would not go as a surprise, although I’m sure that is the last thing that TFC wants given their penalties record this season. One thing is for sure, this game will either go down as one of Toronto’s most triumphant victories and enter the book of legends, or it will go down as one of their most tragic defeats. It is a game to watch.