TORONTO – The final step in the road to the treble was a close-run thing.
For 66 tense, taut minutes, Toronto FC dominated the Seattle Sounders in their MLS Cup rematch, winning the possession battle, pulling the Rave Green ranks apart and carving out a range of scoring chances.
And for 66 minutes Stefan Frei stymied them, standing tall in Seattle’s goal with nine saves over the game’s first hour to keep the game scoreless.
But just as the home faithful’s nerves began to fray at a jam-packed, expectant BMO Field with the second half ticking away, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco donned their hero’s capes right when they were needed most, securing the Reds' third major trophy of a peerless 2017 campaign.
Giovinco played Altidore through a gaping hole in the Sounders defense after a quick TFC transition up the middle of the park caught the visitors out in the 67th minute, and the US international beat Frei with a left-footed finish to win his and his team’s first-ever league title, sparking delirium among the Reds and their fans and securing hard-fought revenge for last year’s Cup heartbreak.
On a cold but clear night on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto’s control of the match was fueled by coach Greg Vanney’s bold gambit to return to the 4-4-2 diamond formation his team had used before last year’s switch to a 3-5-2.
Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez were the protagonists as Seattle chased shadows for long stretches. But the jitters remained as opportunity after opportunity went begging, Giovinco in particular looking tight under the spotlight.
But then that moment of directness and precision undid the Sounders’ rugged resistance, and when Vazquez bundled home an injury-time clincher, a decade’s worth of ghosts and sorrow were washed away for TFC and their supporters, who started a party sure to run long into the night.
- DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER: When starting lineups were posted pregame, more than a few observers – this correspondent included – wondered whether Vanney had conceded the initiative, or perhaps overthought things, with his unexpected formation switch. But the move worked like a charm, solidifying TFC's engine room while maintaining width via fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. Seattle never came to grips with the Reds' numbers and fluidity in the center of the park. It was the capstone of a season's worth of smart management by Vanney.
- RED REDEMPTION: South of the border, Bradley and Altidore have become the scapegoats for the US national team's World Cup qualifying fiasco, drawing cascades of boos in several Stateside stadiums. But now they're Canadian heroes, stepping up in the big moment to bring an MLS Cup to the Great White North for the first time ever, and earning themselves a measure of redemption at the close of a trying 2017.
Michael Bradley completed 92% of his passes (65-71). He led all players with five tackles, shared the lead with four interceptions, and was third on TFC with six clearances. #MLSCup pic.twitter.com/QSkc8K6e0n— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) December 9, 2017
- STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM NOW WE HERE: Toronto FC were a punchline for most of their first decade of existence, famously once dubbed "the worst team in the world" by one of their own players. That surely makes Saturday's triumph all the sweeter, as it marks the summit of an incredibly long (albeit well-financed) climb from the basement to the penthouse. Few can muster any further objections to bestowing them with the title of MLS' GOAT...
Some years ago I shot a game in Toronto at the club’s nadir. Fans with bags over their head, protest banners. Can’t help but marvel at how far the club has come. A heartfelt congratulations to all of you #TFC fans & get out there and party tonight. #MLSCup pic.twitter.com/YYhHbdZ6sk— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) December 9, 2017
Congratulations to @torontofc, who put together the best season in @MLS history, are the first team to win the Domestic Treble, and are the single best team in MLS history. No discussion necessary, no counter-argument possible. #MLSCup— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) December 9, 2017