On Wednesday, Oct. 15, Toronto FC clinched their first playoff spot with a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls. Earlier that day, we took a look at the club's long wait for that first postseason appearance:
Ghosts stalk the halls and sidelines of BMO Field.
Their names, slogans and statistics resonate: Mo Johnston, Earl Cochrane, Tom Anselmi, Kevin Payne … Three-Year Plans, Five-Year Plans … False starts, regular resets … Astonishing goal droughts … 0-9 … Bloody Big Deals … A black cat streaking across the field … Nine (yes, nine) different coaches in nine seasons.
It has been a long eight-plus years for a club that have never managed to make the MLS postseason.
But now Toronto are on the cusp of finally reaching the hallowed ground of the postseason. They need just one point to reach the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, with their first chance to gain that point coming Wednesday night against the New York Red Bulls (7pm ET, TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE in US); a win would even push Toronto up into second place and give them hopes of home-field advantage in the conference semifinals.
Yet history has not been kind to Toronto FC, and almost unquestionably the ones who have suffered most are the fans.
“At first I was just excited to have the opportunity to watch local football in a proper venue with other supporters,” said Mike Doran, a long-time season-ticket holder who currently stands in the front row of Section 113, the heart of the supporters' section. “Over time, the on-field performance, managerial ineptitude and corporate mismanagement have turned it into a bit of a slog. My biggest takeaway from eight years of TFC isn't the team, but the friends I've made. I find it tough to get behind the badge.”
It's been a hard road for the fans, but even for the professionals who track the team, it's been a 'challenging' experience documenting the struggles of Canada's first MLS club.
“You can only write so many times, 'They suck,' 'They're terrible,'” said Sportsnet's John Molinaro, who has covered the team since their inaugural campaign in 2007, reflecting on the team's eight failed attempts to reach the MLS postseason. “You don't want to be so negative, but it is what it is; you have to call it what it is. It's been depressing at times.”
As for the players themselves, that mass of disappointment weighs heavy.
“It was tough,” recounted Toronto native Ashtone Morgan, the club's longest-serving player. “I want to win. We all want to win. The club wants to win. The staff, the players – we all want to win.”
“We feel the responsibility of many years before,” admitted current head coach Greg Vanney at the end of September. “From the end of the season last year, when we found out it wasn't going to happen, we took a group of players to California (in preparation for next season) to say this will never happen again. We started with them in preseason, adding pieces. The first thing that is discussed is that as a club, we've never been successful. That's our challenge this year: to get over that'”
But ghosts do not fear mere words. The years have proven that reaching the postseason is no simple feat.
Perhaps the most agonizing brush with the postseason came in 2009. Toronto FC needed a win or a tie in their final game – on the road against, of all teams, the Red Bulls – to make the playoffs.
“The night before, we all went out to a restaurant and ate dinner; the mood was very relaxed,” recalled defender Adrian Serioux. “There were a lot of experienced guys that knew that stress was on our backs. … But what happened next is difficult to explain. I don't really know. … Still, to this day, I try to figure out what happened, because we all approached that game knowing what we needed to do. But when that first whistle went, and that storm was going, it was fast and furious, and we got too far behind. We weren't able to get back on track.”
In the pouring rain at Giants Stadium, Macoumba Kandji gave the last-place Red Bulls, who were in the midst of a strong finish to a terrible season, the lead in less than two minutes. Bouna Coundoul made several key saves to deny Toronto FC in the first half, and when Juan Pablo Angel doubled the New York lead before halftime, the rout was on. When the dust cleared, Toronto had lost 5-0 and failed to clinch a playoff berth.
“I think everybody remembers that last game. It all collapsed,” lamented Serioux. “It's one of those things that you try to forget, but at the same time, you remember, because that was the closest that TFC has ever come to making the playoffs.”
Later that night, Real Salt Lake crushed Colorado 3-0 to leapfrog Toronto and D.C. United for the final playoff spot, then went on to a stunning MLS Cup triumph.
“That was one of the worst moments of the club's history,” said team legend Danny Dichio, who scored the first Toronto goal in 2007 and now coaches in the club's academy. “It was a real eye-opener for us afterwards to look at and see that we were so close. Seeing another team, that were so close to not getting in, go on and win it shows you anything can happen in the playoffs.”
As gut-wrenching as 2009 may have been, it does not account for seven other seasons of missed chances.
When asked to elect one culprit, Molinaro is plain: “turnover,” he says, referring to the revolving door of players, coaches and staffers in the front office and upper management.
“We were always chasing, not so much the quick fix, but we were always chasing to get to that playoff,” Dichio says. “We were looking to do anything we could do in a short time. Whether it be changing managers, changing of players … once you don't have a balanced squad and you continually bring in new players, it's very hard to jell. Add that to the rotation of managers, and it was very hard for the club to grasp that playoff spot.”
Serioux, an MLS Cup champion with the Houston Dynamo in 2006, has seen first-hand what continuity can provide.
“I've been on a lot of teams, and it comes down to the core and cohesion that teams have,” Serioux said. “If you look at a lot of teams that have been successful in this league, it's teams that have a group of guys that have been together for a while and understand different movements and how to play with each other. I simplify it down to that.”
Though the latest crop of TFC talent bears little resemblance to those past teams, disruptive spirits still linger.
“Sometimes I come into the locker room, and you can feel the weight of responsibility in the group,” said Vanney. “You sense that they feel like there's a big hurdle in front of them that they have to clear. Once they clear it … I almost feel like once we clear it, it'll be a relief, and maybe we can even let loose a little bit more in terms of our personality and our emotions. We're so wound tight right now to get that off of our back, that at times it slows us down, or hinders us, and we play with a little bit of hesitation, to not want to lose, to not want to give something up, because we have that with us.”
More than eight years after he christened BMO Field with that unforgettable goal, one that produced a euphoric hailstorm of seat cushions, Dichio finally sees the potential for stability.
“Moving to a new training ground, having a management team that are going to be in longer than a year has given everyone a sense of stability,” said the club legend.
If this is the year that that curse is lifted, “It'll be huge,” says Serioux, who now covers Toronto for GolTV and Sportsnet Radio. “I know what it was like for any Canadian growing up in this country and how hard soccer has been to really catch on at a professional level. You look at all the kids playing the game, the highest [participation by sport] for kids in the country, but the professional outlet wasn't really there. So to see this team finally be successful with the fans that have been supporting them since Day 1. … Out of all, they deserve to see a successful club.”
If and when Toronto finally make the playoffs, especially if they host a playoff game, Dichio expects BMO Field to come full circle, all the way back to May 12, 2007.
“The joy … and the relief. I remember going back to the day where I scored the first goal. The relief in the stadium, that they actually scored a goal at last, was pretty evident, to not only see, but to feel as well,” Dichio says. “The emotions will definitely come out. From me personally, but from us as a club, that we finally reached our goal. But we don't just want to reach our goal of getting into the playoffs. Everyone here at the club is wanting for us to go deep. … Once we get there, we'll be there for a long, long time; we'll continually get there year after year.”
This year, the numbers favor Toronto.
Barring an epic collapse (this is Toronto FC, so it could still happen), they will reach the postseason for the first time. Nevertheless, today's players are in no mood to get ahead of themselves.
“I don't want to speak too soon,” cautioned Morgan, “but if and when the time comes, it's going to be a great feeling, one for the entire club.”
Even the impartial journalists are excited at the prospects of November soccer.
“I'm dying to cover (a playoff game),” said Molinaro. “I covered MLS Cup when it was here [in 2010], but to actually cover a TFC playoff game … I'm getting all excited. After watching all those games from the front row of the press box and see them throw away countless leads and have to rewrite countless stories, it's great that they're finally having some success. It's going to be genuinely fun to cover a playoff game; I'm really looking forward to it.”
But for the long-suffering fans, more is required to truly lay a final marker over seasons past.
“I want this team to succeed,” said Doran, who is perhaps the only fan to have made every trek to Montreal to support his side against their biggest rivals. “I've spent ridiculous amounts of time and money following and supporting TFC. Watching a winning team is way more fun than watching a losing team.”
“I don't see locking down sixth as something to celebrate,” Doran continued. “This is a good team with an unprecedented payroll. I don't think it's negative to expect more: finish in the top four, win in the postseason. Then it's time to celebrate. I'm waiting for true success.”
Elusive ghosts, indeed.