Remembering TFC's Strive For Greatness

Charlie Lindsay (Sportsnet)

Charlie Lindsay (Sportsnet)

From the moment we’re old enough to understand the significance of our future, we join the rest of humanity in the never-ending chase for success. The theory of what makes somebody successful can be subjective, different people attribute the embodiment of success to divergent factors. However, there is a common component among many success stories, and that is the failure. Toronto FC is the living personification of this rule of law.

Although only formed in 2005 after the MLSE was gifted an expansion team by the MLS, the franchise has experienced both startling high’s and dramatic low’s, all while having a surprisingly strong fanbase that fearlessly battles the cold weather and blizzards to show up and offer support to their favourite soccer team. Albeit, it took the team a while to score their first goal, Toronto FC used the excitement generated from the city and the motivation of being overlooked by all of their adversaries as an opportunity to do quite well actually.

The primitive years were promising, although there was no actual silverware that was won, the team was slowly building an identity and integrating itself in the culture of Toronto sports. However, years that followed were plagued with consistent failures to make the playoffs and an incapability to break apart from the bottom half of the league. Though the team won four straight Canadian championships from 2009-2012, Toronto was yet to make any noteworthy impact whatsoever in the MLS. Finally, in 2015, Toronto FC fans would rejoice as “the Reds” made their first playoff appearance in franchise history. While the rush of popping your playoff cherry is riveting action for hardcore and casual fans alike, the team could not convert that same energy on to the pitch and were quickly ousted in the first round, losing 3-0 to their bitter rivals, the Montreal Impact.

For citizens of the city, this seemed to be the beginning of a story we were already being told with the Raptors; although the seasons felt bigger every year, in reality, we never really had a shot when attempting to get past LeBron James and whoever he decided to play with that year. The perception after the 2015 MLS playoffs was that Toronto was still far removed from reaching the peak of success, and would need many changes in order to come close to reaching a final, let alone being victorious. However, the beauty of sports is the nature of its complex unpredictability. The very next season a motivated Toronto FC finished the season 3rd in the conference and 6th overall after the regular season, capping off their best record in franchise history.

The Reds cruised into the playoffs on the back of reigning most valuable player, Sebastian Giovinco and star striker Jozy Altidore. As the two budding superstars continued to cooperate, the team steamrolled the Philadelphia Union in the first round. In the conference semi-finals, they dominated the talent-rich eastern conference favourites, NYC FC, beating them 7-0 on aggregate. By the time the conference finals came around, the entire city of Toronto was ready to welcome another trophy to the city. Motivated to continue the dream run as well as prove their growth, the team met the Montreal Impact in the conference finals, the very team that embarrassed them just 11 months prior. Perhaps the most gruelling playoff tie in recent memory ended with Toronto FC defeating their eternal rivals to advance to their first-ever MLS Final against Seattle. With the final being played in Toronto and the top scorer of the playoffs wearing the #9 shirt for the reds, the feeling league-wide was that Seattle would be overwhelmed by Toronto’s offence and rabid atmosphere. The city was a massive buzz, the opportunity to win a championship on your home pitch was a fictional type scenario until it was very real. The Cinderella story was no longer a fairy tale, it was a reality, and it was happening in OUR city, with OUR team.

However Seattle had other plans, from the moment the final began, the sounders pushed an aggressive defensive approach, seeking to carefully choose when to attack as they focused a majority of their attention on hard, aggressive defence that frustrated the smooth and silky offence of Toronto FC. The game was left scoreless after 120 minutes, which evidently lead to the most dramatic way to end any soccer game, a penalty shootout. After ten men made the nerve-racking walk and took their shots, the shootout ended 5-4 for the Sounders. As the city of Seattle and its players howled into the night’s sky in joy, the BMO Field was left in a limbo of complete shock, and an uncomfortable “deja vu” that reared the reoccurring fact that a Toronto team had once again come up short.

Charlie Lindsay (Sportsnet)

Charlie Lindsay (Sportsnet)

The party was over, to experience a final in our home pitch ended up being the only glimmer of success to take away from such a wildly successful season, but at the end, it was a failure once again. In the eyes of the media and fans alike, the pinnacle had been reached, and although yearly expectations had changed, nobody really expected Toronto to make the finals again for a couple season at least. Everyone was aware that it could have very likely been a burst of energy, an irregular turn of fortune and most notably, “a hype”. The general consensus was that this team achieved what it did because of the hype surrounding the playoff run and that now, the team would slowly work its way back to mediocrity. But again, like all great teams that achieve their ultimate goal, they proved the general consensus was dramatically flawed.

Success is really about the failures, the more one can focus on their flaws and how to correct them, naturally, they will experience a quicker rate of growth and success. A prevalent theme in success is the ability to not only be comfortable with being uncomfortable but also the ability to never use your failures as an excuse to quit. Toronto FC is a personification of success through failure via mental and emotional discipline. The ability to believe in yourself is a valuable tool, however, the ability to believe once you’ve already fallen a couple times, is priceless. The Reds intended to use the next season to display this self-belief and determination by looking solely for revenge for what was surely their destiny, the year before.

Toronto made the most of the 2017 MLS season, reaching a franchise record 69 points and finishing with the best record in the league. Star players like Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley shouldered most of the responsibilities as the remainder of the team filled in their roles. Toronto scored 74 goals that season, 23 more than the previous year, the defensive schemes were working as the team shifted to a team approach on defence, rather than man to man. The reds used the confidence built throughout the season, mixed with their valued playoff experience to attempt to make the final jump necessary to be champions. Once in the playoffs, Toronto just managed to edge out wins against New York and Columbus to reach their second straight MLS Cup final. There it was, exactly how they wanted it and precisely how the fans could picture it in an ideal world. The cup final, once again in Toronto as well as once again against Seattle. Although the doubts during pre-game talk were high, whether this Toronto team would be able to beat the same team that systematically shut them down on their home pitch just a year ago. The questions were being raised as to how the team would make adjustments against such a well coached and sufficiently organized team.

After more than a half of drama infused football took place in BMO Field, eyes shifting from side to side as the ball rolled from end to end. During the 66th minute of play, captain Michael Bradley retrieved a ball from Toronto’s half and passed it to midfielder Victor Vazquez, who then turns and slices a quick pass to attacking forward Sebastian Giovinco, who then carefully plays the ball to a cutting Jozy Altidore. As the ball rolled to Altidore, his eyes widened as he knew this was his chance to solidify not only a victory for a city hungry for success but his legacy as well, which would be cemented in Toronto sports folklore. Incredibly, as the clock hit 66 minutes and 16 seconds, with one swift motion with his hips, Altidore connected with the football as perfectly as any striker could with that particular angle. The ball flew past the keeper and the score was 1-0 to Toronto FC.

For years I would sit in my room and think about how much more exhilarating life would be if my city ever managed to win a championship. It was a fictional thought, a figment of my imagination, and I knew it. How could any league dominated by American teams, allow the only Canadian team in most sports, to ever win anything. I always had a great passion for Toronto sports teams, but I never placed unrealistic expectations on them, because I simply believed them to be impossible. For casuals and people who couldn’t be bothered, this was a great achievement for the city, for me however it was vastly different. When Altidore confidently struck his shot into the bottom corner to give the reds the MLS cup, it single-handedly changed the way sports teams in Toronto are perceived in the modern day. The significance of that connection was so impactful, that part of its importance can only be unravelled once the team has achieved even more success.

The product of an experiment formed in 2005 which went through major setbacks and hardships, which led to a revision in plans after the 2015 season. But there we were, two years after it seemed like we were headed for a rebuild, the players and coaching staff proved their determination and hunger for revenge with a single spectacular shot. Their inability to lay with defeat was perhaps the biggest reason for their success. The reality of their failures, caused them to seek the motivation necessary to follow it up with success. As Toronto FC ages, and hopefully win more cups in the future, 16 seconds into the 66th minute on December 7th, 2017 will forever be the single most defining moment in the club’s history. This is because, like many things in life, there's nothing quite like the first time.