Their history is full of twists, turns and bumps in the road, but Toronto FC’s path to their first ever appearance at MLS Cup was remarkably smooth in 2016.
Just how did TFC arrive in Saturday’s final against the Seattle Sounders (8 pm ET; FOX, UniMas in the US, TSN1/3/4/5, RDS in Canada)? Let’s dig in:
No huge names, but Toronto wins another offseason
After acquiring Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco in the previous two winters, Toronto took a bit of a different approach to the 2015/16 offseason. Recognizing the need to shore up their leaky defense, TFC didn't sign any huge names, but added plenty of MLS experience in the back this winter.
They signed free agent Drew Moor from Colorado, added goalkeeper Clint Irwin in a trade from the Rapids and acquired defender Steven Beitashour and midfielder Will Johnson in trades with Vancouver and Portland, respectively. All four players brought veteran know-how and MLS savvy to Toronto’s roster, and all four would go on to play huge roles in TFC’s run to the title game.
For the second straight year, TFC started the season with a lengthy road trip to accommodate renovations to BMO Field.
And, for the second straight year, Toronto came out of it relatively unscathed.
TFC went 3-3-2 in their season-opening eight game road trip, setting themselves up very nicely for a run at the Supporters’ Shield and the top of the Eastern Conference. Toronto didn’t end up claiming either of those honors, but their early season road trip was instructive. TFC were disciplined and defensively stout, showing hints that 2016 might just turn into a special year.
Canadian Championship sparks second half surge
Toronto began the season strongly, but fell a bit flat after opening their home schedule with a 1-0 win against FC Dallas on May 7. TFC went just 1-3-2 in the six games following the win against FCD and looked poised to enter July on a bit of a downturn.
Their momentum changed in a massive way in the final of the Canadian Championship, however. Trailing Vancouver 2-1 on aggregate in the final seconds of the series’ second leg at BC Place, Will Johnson came up with a huge goal right at the death to pull Toronto level in the series and win the club the Voyageurs Cup on away goals.
The dramatic win sparked an excellent stretch for TFC, who went 7-1-3 in their next 11 MLS matches. That hot run was enough for the club to survive a bit of a late dip – Toronto were 2-2-4 in their final eight – and maintain the East’s third seed heading into the playoffs.
A playoff run to remember
Toronto’s 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Union in the Knockout Round was relatively straightforward. The rest of their MLS Cup Playoff run has been anything but.
Things started to get weird in the Eastern Conference Semifinal series against New York City FC. Toronto got a couple of second half goals to top NYCFC 2-0 in the first leg, then blitzed City in the return leg in the Bronx, putting up five goals to beat the second-year club 5-0 at Yankee Stadium and 7-0 on aggregate.
The win against NYCFC set up a massive Canadian showdown with Montreal. The series ended up being one of the best in MLS playoff history. The Impact jumped all over Toronto in the first leg, scoring three first half goals to race out to a huge, seemingly insurmountable, lead. TFC clawed their way back into it, however, scoring a pair of second half goals at sold-out Olympic Stadium to head into the second leg down 3-2.
That deficit was reasonable – Leg 2 was not. Things got wild at BMO Field, with the two rivals trading punches in the rain before Nick Hagglund headed home a set piece to make it 3-2 in the second half. Toronto’s hopes took a hit when Giovinco had to leave the match in the first period of extra time, but TFC didn’t miss a beat with their star player on the sidelines, scoring twice in quick succession to win the match 5-2 and take the series 7-5.
If we get half the fireworks on Saturday that we saw in that second leg, we’ll have an MLS Cup for the ages.
ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: Sigi Schmid joins the guys to preview MLS Cup in Toronto. First up, a big-picture look at what Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have accomplished to get to this point and what's at stake, then a comprehensive tactical breakdown ahead of the big game.