'Beyond family': TFC united in face of adversity en route to MLS title
Victory special for coach Vanney after losing his mother earlier this year
TORONTO — In the lead up to their much anticipated MLS Cup rematch against the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC were laser-focused, almost business-like with each passing day.
On Saturday evening, those walls came down as TFC left their emotions on the field hoping to give their dedicated fan base the championship they felt they were robbed of last year.
And it looked like they were heading that way again.
Toronto dominated the first half, peppering shot after shot on Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, only to have their old friend turned nemesis deny them each time.
But Seattle tempted fate one too many times and in the 67th minute, Toronto forward Jozy Altidore finally got the best of Frei, sending BMO Field into a frenzy that was 11 years in the making.
It was a lead TFC wouldn't surrender en route to a 2-0 victory and instead of seat cushions flying from the stands, it was confetti falling down as captain Michael Bradley hoisted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
Special for coach Vanney
But this win wasn't just for the city of Toronto, it was for a special person that's been with Toronto head coach Greg Vanney every step of his life and once the final whistle blew, he knew she was right there with him.
"I looked up to the sky because as most of you are aware, I lost my mother this year and she would've been really proud. I've lost this [championship] game four times prior to tonight and she was a witness to all of those." Vanney said.
Jeanette Vanney passed away at the age of 69 last April in an Arizona hospital with her husband William by her side.
Greg says his mother was like a lot of moms — his No.1 fan at his youth soccer games yelling at referees whenever he didn't get calls.
Like her husband, Jeanette was a teacher and they both heavily influenced the career their son would pursue.
"I got some of my patience from her side, my ability to interact with people and hopefully create an environment that our guys love to have. Those were traits she had as a kindergarten teacher," Vanney said.
"I knew from a very early age that coaching was something I wanted to do after I finished playing ... so I'm pleased in a year like this that we were able to do that and I know she's proud."
'We won it for him'
It's clear that there's a lot of Jeanette in Vanney based on the way his players talk about him.
They respect him, his decision making, and the way he pours his heart and soul into each training session and game day.
"We won it for him. We know how passionate he is about this team, this city. He's a great teacher and I've learned a lot from him ... it's been a joy to play for him and hopefully I can play for him for many years to come," said Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono.
Starting goalkeeper Alex Bono knew just how much a win would mean to Vanney and Zavaleta after the year they've been through <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/mlscup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#mlscup</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TFCLive?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TFCLive</a> <a href="https://t.co/wLWkrKGNGN">pic.twitter.com/wLWkrKGNGN</a>—@chicco_n
Jeanette is also the grandmother of defender Eriq Zavaleta, Greg's nephew.
Zavaleta started 27 regular-season games this season and was a fixture on TFC's backline. Bono considers the 25-year-old one of his best friends and supported Zavaleta throughout the process.
"I tried to be there for him. Then, there came a time where he just wanted to get that out of the way and continue playing. That's a real testament to his character — to be able to put something as monumental and devastating aside and focus on football and [the] task at hand is a real testament to him and his character," Bono said.
Defender Nick Hagglund says the whole season was all about adversity from Drew Moor's heart condition to Jim Liston's (Toronto's director of sports science) father passing away just a few days ago.
Nick Hagglund was one of a handful of members of the organization who had gone through some tough times spraining his left MCL in August <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLSCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MLSCup</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TFCLive?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TFCLive</a> <a href="https://t.co/3Ij6jyIyma">pic.twitter.com/3Ij6jyIyma</a>—@chicco_n
But through thick and thin, they got through it all together.
Locker room is a family
"The locker room is a family and off the field things bring us together on the field. Our successes are because of the culture Greg, our GM, our president bring together — they desire a group that is for one another," Hagglund said.
Altidore says there isn't a better way to describe the organization than family. When the striker joined TFC in January 2015, he says he wasn't in the best place personally and the organization had his back since day one.
"I came here and I didn't know what to expect. I was going through a lot of stuff away from the field. They all know about my [personal] life. They've helped me through so much, more than they probably know or understand," Altidore said.
"When I say this is a special place, I mean it. If you can go beyond family, I would — that's how I feel about this place."
The feeling is mutual with Bradley — his longtime teammate on the United States men's national team.
Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have been through it all as club and international teammates <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLSCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MLSCup</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TFCLive?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TFCLive</a> <a href="https://t.co/dUnkyIeE33">pic.twitter.com/dUnkyIeE33</a>—@chicco_n
He's made it no secret how much he loves this city and there's no place Bradley would rather be.
"When push comes to shove, you want to step into the biggest moments with people that you would do anything for, that you love, that you believe in, that you trust, that you know have your back and I have that right here," Bradley said.
"I would do anything for any one of those guys and I know that they would do the same for me. I think across the board on our club that's the mentality, we are all in something together, we have each other's back to the end of the world and there are no questions asked about that."