As I write this, three hours after the final whistle at BMO Field, my heartbeat shows no sign of slowing down. What a game. What a series. What could possibly top this?
No matter what happens on Dec. 10 between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup, you can be satisfied in the knowledge that in the year 2016 you witnessed the most compelling, entertaining and downright spine-tingling MLS Cup Playoffs series ever played. Hell, let’s skip the qualifiers and give Toronto FC-Montreal Impact the designation it deserves: the best of all-time.
Before you start with the inevitable ‘Yeah, buts’ let’s reflect quickly on 210 minutes of nonstop drama that set playoff precedents across the board.
Biggest stakes? A place in MLS Cup, the first ever for a Canadian team, contested by archrivals is as big-time as it gets. Most goals? Yep, two more than the previous high of 10 over two legs, with bona fide stars Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Ignacio Piatti among the scorers. Most fans? By far, as damn near 100,000 combined spectators packed Olympic Stadium and BMO Field to the gills and created two world-class environments no matter the measure.
Most jaw-dropping moments? How about the Montreal uppercut that nearly ended the series after 53 minutes and the subsequent Toronto comeback that set the stage for Leg 2? Or the tit-for-tat insanity that had me screaming at the television for most of Wednesday night as the lead flip flopped back and forth all the way into extra time, when substitute Benoit Cheyrou scored the winner with his first touch?
Oh, and don’t forget the bizarre start to all of this in Leg 1: the 18-yard box that wasn’t quite wide enough, forcing a half-hour delay equal parts memorable and absurd as the Olympic Stadium grounds crew covered some lines and repainted others.
Over two legs, the Eastern Conference Championship was the MLS Cup Playoffs at its very best, an intoxicating cocktail of skill, spectacle, bad blood and enough incredulous moments to leave even neutrals feeling like they might hyperventilate.
Sure, the San Jose Earthquakes comeback against the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2003 was the comeback of a lifetime, a 4-0 deficit erased in 75 minutes and won by a golden goal. Then again, only 14,145 fans were there to witness it, and it was just the beginning of that year’s playoff march – San Jose would eventually lift the Cup – a conference semifinal in which the first leg was a straightforward 2-0 Galaxy win.
The year prior, the Galaxy had played another classic against the Kansas City Wizards on their way to their own MLS Cup triumph, a three-leg series that featured 17 goals and saw Carlos Ruiz and Cobi Jones duel Preki and Chris Klein before MLS debutante McKinley Tennyson scored the game- and series-winner 31 seconds into his first-ever appearance in the 93rd minute of the final match at the Rose Bowl. That was good, but not good enough.
Go back to 1996, the Kansas City Wiz and Dallas Burn (throwback!) had themselves a series. More recently, the 2012 Atlantic Cup playoff series best known for the snowstorm that that postponed the game at Red Bull Arena had real buzz. The 2014 Eastern Conference Championship between the Red Bulls and New England Revolution, the second leg of which was Thierry Henry’s final MLS game, deserves plaudits. Same for clashes last year between the Impact and Crew SC and FC Dallas and Seattle.
But if we’re being honest, none of those games measures up to what we saw transpire between Toronto and Montreal over the past week.
The stars, the stakes, the goals, the crowds, the television and press coverage, the sheer drama of the affair from start to finish – it was the sort of series that gets passed down from generation to generation of Toronto FC and Impact fans. On one side, joy. On the other, misery.
The cynic in me says MLS Cup couldn’t possibly top what we saw play out tonight. And yet, with my heart still thumping at the thought of Dominic Oduro in open space or another tantalizing cross being floated into the box for Nick Hagglund to attack, the optimist in me says, ‘Why not?’