Just four years ago, Toronto FC was “the worst team in the world.” Now, they sit on the precipice of reigning supreme in Major League Soccer.
It was on May 19, 2012 that striker Danny Koevermans declared TFC – fresh off losing their ninth straight game to start the season – to be a global laughingstock. Given what they’d seen to that point in the team’s existence, already-cynical Reds supporters were likely inclined to agree.
A week later, in a game against the Philadelphia Union, the ball bundled off Koevermans’ thigh in the 88th minute and found the back of the south-end goal at BMO Field, giving TFC their first win of the campaign.
The south stands erupted on that day in a sort of self-loathing catharsis. The moment was, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers might frame it, pleasure spiked with pain. Breaking the ignominious streak was nice in-and-of-itself, but wouldn't ever save the season, nor manager Aron Winter’s job (he departed just a few weeks later).
Whatever joy the TFC faithful have been permitted to experience to this point has been tempered by a reckoning, either instantaneous or further down the road.
That in mind, it was perhaps unavoidable that Montreal would score the opening goal of Wednesday's Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship second leg at BMO Field. With TFC fans feeling optimistic after nicking two away goals in the first leg, it was natural for them to be brought back to earth quickly and ruthlessly.
And yet, contrary to every instinct that TFC’s fans have built up, the team fought back – and they prevailed, in perhaps the most rollicking and dramatic fashion possible, a 5-2 victory advancing their 7-5 aggregate margin in the series.
At the final whistle, it was nearly impossible to keep track of the fluctuations between excitement and disbelief among the TFC hardcore. Could this really, really be happening? Were they to finally be permitted a moment of unmitigated joy? And if so, what the heck were they going to do with it?
They were going to sing, and dance, and serenade the evening’s heroes. They were going to hug, and kiss, and slap the backs of one another in the sort of physical exchanges that are not only permissible, but encouraged, in those rare moments of filter-free sporting bliss.
There is a special breed who’ve endured all of the team’s seemingly endless indignities since opening day in 2007. Among those Day One diehards, the past decade has brought new wedding rings, new gray hairs, new babies and new birthday milestones passed. The constant has been an usually-irrational belief that at some point, a day like this would arrive.
Now that it’s come, the game, in which more than 35,000 fans packed the freshly expanded BMO Field, basically flicked a “reset” switch on the entire franchise. Whatever becomes of TFC in the Dec. 10 MLS Cup final against Seattle (8 pm ET; FOX, UniMás | TSN, RDS in Canada), the team is now once again prime property in the mental real-estate market of Toronto sports enthusiasts.
TFC will head into 2017 with the sort of ravenous hype that hasn’t been seen since their initial arrival. Among those flocking to BMO Field in the years to come will surely be plenty of folks who’ve only recently jumped on the bandwagon, no different than what the city has seen with the recent success of both the Blue Jays and Raptors.
But for those who’ve endured TFC’s status as a laughingstock for the majority of the last decade, those who’ve held onto their season seats all along, those who’ve continued flocking to supporters-group pubs to watch late-night, West-coast games even long after TFC’s playoff dreams had been extinguished, those who remember Gabe Gala and Fuad Ibrahim and Joseph Nane (or was it Nane Joseph?) and all the rest … there is no way to adequately describe what this means.
Former Toronto Mayor David Miller, so integral in the construction of BMO Field in the first place, was among the fans chanting an ode to Benoit Cheyrou – whose extra-time goal clinched the first-ever MLS Cup appearance for a Canadian team – in the aftermath of Wednesday’s game.
There’s no chance he could have foreseen what the stadium, and team, would become; nor could he have predicted the turnover in players, managers, front-office staff and yes, fans, that would ensue.
And now, just over a week from the team’s biggest game ever, one of the few links Toronto FC’s ignominious past is the fans who have – in defiance of their own best judgment – remained loyal to the squad through the thick and (mostly) thin of the last 10 years.
Those scars will forever define a fanbase that has yet to fully wrap its head around what its team has become. And those scars will, until the final whistle is blown in the 2016 MLS Cup, compel Toronto FC’s diehard fans to believe that they aren’t entitled to happiness.
But after all this time, maybe – just maybe – they actually are.