Toronto FC gets redemption with MLS Cup victory
Jozy Altidore breaks tie with Sounders in 67th minute to propel team to win
The MLS Cup has long been a dream for beleaguered Toronto FC fans. For captain Michael Bradley, it was an obsession after losing the championship game last year in a penalty shootout.
"Not just for me but every single guy in our team," Bradley said.
"I could sit here and try to explain to you guys for the next two hours what it's like to lose a final on penalties the way we did last year and to have to wake up the next morning and feel like your chance at redemption might as well be 50 years away," Bradley added Saturday after finally scratching that very big title itch.
Toronto avenged last year's MLS Cup final loss to Seattle by dominating the Sounders 2-0 in the championship rematch.
Jozy Altidore scored in the 67th minute and Victor Vazquez added a stoppage-time counter-attack goal as Toronto completed its record-breaking season.
The home side put on a performance brimming with confidence and intent before 30,584 on a warmer-than-expected late afternoon at BMO Field, where it was 1 Celsius at kickoff.
Seattle was on the back foot almost from the get-go. Toronto grabbed the Sounders by the scruff of the neck and didn't stop shaking for 90 minutes.
Win especially sweet
Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said his team will be taking some pointers from Toronto.
"If you look at Toronto's year, the start of the year was the loss in the 2016 MLS Cup, and you could tell that that was a motivated franchise, motivated coach, motivated team," he said.
"Their success throughout the year I believe was fuelled by the loss last year, so what I told my group was I said 'Look, we can use it the same way. We're still a good team. We can go out and compile a few more wins and maybe host an MLS Cup final in front of our Seattle fans."'
The win was especially sweet for a Toronto franchise that, while a hit at the turnstiles since entering MLS in 2007, was the league doormat for a long time. Ownership changed coaches, players and philosophies seemingly at will.
Toronto missed the playoffs for its first eight years and needed five seasons to register a total of 10 away wins.
In 2012, the team set a league record by losing nine game straight to open the season.
"We're setting a record for the worst team in the world, man, and it's painful," star striker Danny Koevermans said famously at the time. "What can I say more? It's just the worst ever."
After that disastrous 5-21-8 season, Toronto rolled back season-ticket prices to 2007 levels to appease disgruntled fans.
Tim Leiweke, hired as president and CEO of owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in April 2013 got the ball rolling. Leiweke had the vision and inclination to bring big-ticket designated players like Bradley to Toronto.
He didn't always hit the right note but he pushed the franchise back on track.
Back on track
The hiring of Tim Bezbatchenko as GM (September 2013), Greg Vanney as head coach (August 2013) and Bill Manning as president (October 2015) steadied the ship. The right players were found and the right culture was instilled.
But in all, it took 11 seasons, nine coaches and 370 games to hoist the MLS Cup.
Saturday's win completed an unprecedented treble for Toronto, adding the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy to the Supporters' Shield symbolic of the best regular-season record — in this case the league's best regular season ever — and the Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champions.
Toronto (20-5-9) earned a league-record 69 points this season, dispatching the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC earlier in the playoffs.
The first team to clinch a spot in the playoffs this season, Toronto set franchise records for wins (20), goals scored (74), fewest goals allowed (37), shutouts (13), home wins (13), home points (42), road wins (7) and road points (27).
But all the records would have meant nothing if the league's highest-spending team had lost Saturday. Instead of champions, Toronto would have been halfway to matching the Buffalo Bills in finals futility.
Vanney, who played on the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy team whose points record was erased by TFC this season, had said previously Toronto was the best team ever in MLS.
"Nobody has accomplished what this team has accomplished historically," he said Saturday, doubling-down. "We won obviously every championship along the way, set a points record. The quality and the way which this group went about their business over the course of a season.
"And we're not done yet," he added as Bradley nodded in agreement. "We still have things in front of us that we want to continue to achieve. We're still writing that story."
90 minutes of one-way traffic
Toronto ran roughshod over the Sounders, claiming its trophy after 90 minutes of one-way traffic. But the home side — like in last year's final — was unable to beat Seattle's superb 'keeper Stefan Frei.
That changed midway through the second half after a Sounders turnover deep in the Toronto end was sent back the other way at pace. Sebastian Giovinco split the defence with a pass and Altidore chipped the ball over an onrushing Frei.
Altidore, who had scored the winning goal last time out despite rolling his ankle in the Eastern Conference final against Columbus, headed towards the southwest corner for a repeat celebration that saw him swallowed up by jubilant teammates.
Altidore was named the game's most valuable player for his performance.
Vazquez made it 2-0, knocking the ball in the 94th minute after Armando Cooper's shot hit the goalpost. The south stand lit up lit a Christmas tree immediately as supporters fired up flares to celebrate.
Prior to Altidore's strike, the Sounders had not conceded a goal in 609 minutes, a run that dated back to a 2-0 loss in Philadelphia on Oct. 1. Seattle had posted shutouts in 12 of its previous 18 games, including the last six.
Seattle's post-season shutout run was even longer — an MLS playoff-record 714 minutes dating back to the second leg of the 2016 Western Conference final against the Colorado Rapids.
Toronto, which had outshot Seattle 19-3 (7-0 in shots on target in last year's final, outshot Seattle 22-7 (11-2 on target) this time.
"At some point if you're going to rely on your goalkeeper that often and in that many critical moments, one of them is going to get through," said Schmetzer.
While Toronto enjoyed a record-breaking regular season, the playoff road to the final proved to be a grind. TFC came into the game just 4-3-2 since mid-September, outscoring the opposition 14-13.
Normal service resumed Saturday.
Toronto dropped centre back Eriq Zavaleta to the bench, switching to a 4-4-2 from its more normal 3-5-2 formation. That made room for both Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado in the diamond-shaped midfield, with Bradley shielding the backline.
For Vanney, the switch was made to crowd Seattle in the midfield and make it difficult for the Sounders to settle into their possession-oriented game. On the attacking side, he wanted to get Altidore, Giovinco and Vazquez closer together.
Osorio and Delgado repaid their coach's faith with fine performances. Bradley was immense, Altidore outmuscled defenders, Giovinco danced and Vazquez pulled the strings.
Seattle stuck with its 4-2-3-1 formation with centre back Roman Torres returning from suspension. That set up a domino effect with Gustav Svensson moving from defence to holding midfielder and Nicolas Lodeiro advancing to an attacking midfield role. Joevin Jones dropped back to fullback, consigning Cameroon defender Nouhou to the bench.
It was the Frei show in the first half as the Seattle 'keeper made save after save to keep the Sounders, struggling to keep up with a vibrant Toronto attack, in the game.
Frei faced 12 shots (six on target) in the first half alone.
It was a rapid-fire opening with Toronto bullying the midfield and moving the ball at speed. Frei had to make big saves on both Osorio, Giovinco (twice), Vazquez and Delgado in the first 40 minutes. Toronto's passing, with Vazquez pulling the strings, and constant motion made the Sounders' defence look slow and vulnerable.
Toronto had eight shots (4-0 in shots on target) before Seattle's Jones finally put a shot on goal in the 30th minute — an easy save for Alex Bono. It was the Sounders' first shot on target in 150 minutes over the last two finals.
Toronto had 63.8 per cent possession in the first half, finishing at 56.9 per cent.
And when Seattle came down the other end, Bradley — often playing as a central sweeper — was there to nip the attack in the bud.