TORONTO – Staring at an empty BMO Field from a vantage point on high, it was hard to fathom what happened here just a few scant hours ago.
In front of a record sellout crowd of some 36,000 delirious souls, Toronto FC reached the MLS Cup final for the first time in the franchise's 10-year history.
It was an Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs run that began way back on Oct. 26, a historic night in its own right, as the club hosted their first-ever postseason contest. They would win 3-1 over the Philadelphia Union, moving on the next round.
And now still more firsts – not just the spot in the title game, but also the first club to come back from a first-leg deficit, the first Canadian team in the final, and so much more.
“All week we spoke about what tonight could be,” said Michael Bradley at TFC's postgame press conference, beaming on the podium alongside his head coach, Greg Vanney. “Obviously, nobody knew for sure. We had an idea it could be a special night, in terms of atmosphere, emotion – in some ways 10 years of emotion, coming out in one night. Every person who came into this stadium tonight came because this club, this city, has never seen a soccer game of this importance. We used every bit of that to our advantage.”
It is a unity that has been building for some time now.
“We felt it all week,” continued Bradley. “I dropped my son off at school this morning and every kid that walked into that elementary school had a TFC jersey on, and most of the parents as well. You could feel it in the city, that people have really taken notice, people are proud, excited, tonight was a special night. Ten days from now, we want to do one better.”
But there is more to it than that: Everyone has bought in freely.
“Every single guy at this club has chosen to be at this club, and has chosen to be here for a reason,” said Bradley. “We see unbelievable potential: a city, a market, a fan base, a stadium, a training ground. Every box gets checked. There are other clubs that check a lot of boxes; I'm not sure there's another that checks every box.”
And it is not just this team, but the city itself as a whole.
“It's a pretty cool time to be here. When you look around the city, the sports teams, and what is going on, it's amazing. When you talk about these sports cities that have an aura – Chicago, Boston, New York. In the three years I've been here I would put Toronto up there with any of them. People who are passionate, who care, who are desperate to be a part of a winning city and a winning team.”
Each element reinforces the next. BMO Field became a theater on the shores of Lake Ontario on Wednesday night, as 36,000 people immersed themselves in one of the most astonishing games in Major League Soccer's history. Sheets of incessant rain slickened the lush playing surface and soaked everyone to the bone, but it felt perfect for the moment – the crowd noisy, every bit as relentless as the rain.
It felt like something special was happening.
It's been nearly a decade now since Eddie Johnson stuck that dagger in, scoring a late goal for the then-Kansas City Wizards when TFC lost their MLS home debut in 2007. It seems such a long time ago, and yet, more of those firsts still lie ahead.
“Nights like this is what I was hoping for when I visited almost a year ago,” said defender Drew Moor, a veteran and MLS Cup winner brought to Toronto to help make moments like this. “I've been around as long as TFC – I know their history well. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of what we're doing this season.
“We'll enjoy this tonight, but we've got bigger fish to fry.”