Stejskal: Toronto FC journey from "worst team in the world" to best in MLS

TORONTO – A couple of hours after the final whistle blew on the finest night in Toronto FC’s 11-year history, after the mind-scrambling tension of another tight final against the Seattle Sounders spilled into a champagne-soaked celebration of the club’s first MLS Cup title, after his team became the first in league history to win three major trophies in one year, Tim Bezbatchenko stood in the TFC locker room and tried to explain what it all meant.

The Toronto GM pointed to a sign hanging in the entryway, placed so every player and every coach see it every time they come and go. At the bottom of the sign, underneath a list of some of the club’s smaller, shorter-term objectives, are two words: The Treble.

The Canadian Championship. The Supporters’ Shield. MLS Cup.

After tonight, TFC have all three. After tonight, TFC have history.

“It means we’re the best ever, that’s what it means,” said Bezbatchenko. “From Greg [Vanney] to Michael [Bradley] and all the way down, throughout the entire year they had their eyes set on this. We didn’t talk about it vocally until we started to pick up momentum, pick up the Canadian Championship, but look at this board right here, we made this at the beginning of the year. This was always the goal. The Treble. We made this, this has been here since Day One, and we did it. The Canadian Championship, the Supporters’ Shield – tonight was the last part of it.”

For Bezbatchenko, Bradley and Vanney, MLS Cup was the culmination of a four-year journey to turn TFC from “the worst team in the world to the best team in the history of MLS.”

The laughingstock of the entire league for their first seven seasons, Toronto began their current trajectory in 2014, when they shocked the North American soccer scene by convincing Bradley to ditch Italian giants Roma to sign for their last-place MLS club. Designated Players Jermain Defoe and Gilberto joined the US international in his first season in Toronto, but TFC’s Bloody Big Deal quickly became a Bloody Big Dud. Bradley, Defoe and Gilberto didn’t fit together, head coach Ryan Nelsen was fired midway through the year and the club limped to a weak finish under Vanney to miss the playoffs.

Defoe and Gilberto left following the 2014 season, replaced by rock stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Together with Bradley, they took Toronto to new heights. Giovinco ran away with the MLS MVP, leading TFC to their first-ever playoff berth. There was a raucous celebration at BMO Field on the day they clinched, but the club’s moment of catharsis didn’t last. Toronto were bounced in the Knockout Round, dominated 3-0 by Didier Drogba and archrivals Montreal to immediately exit the playoffs.  

They improved again in 2016, but with more success came more disappointment. Much more. Toronto finished the regular season third in the East, then beat Philadelphia, NYCFC and Montreal to advance to MLS Cup against Seattle. Everything looked lined up for the Reds to take the title. The Sounders were banged up heading into the final, and Toronto dominated, not allowing a single shot on goal. But they were turned away time and time again by goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who bested them in the shootout to steal the championship from TFC.

The defeat gnawed at Toronto all winter and changed the tenor of the locker room. Winning MLS Cup was no longer just a mission for Bradley, Giovinco, Altidore and the rest of the roster; it became an obsession. All the disappointment of the previous three years, the expectations that they failed to reach, the trophies they didn’t claim, they became fuel. 2017, they felt, would be their year.

From the start, they dominated. Toronto were the best team in the league wire-to-wire, edging out Montreal for the Canadian Championship in June, running away with the Supporters’ Shield and setting the all-time regular-season record for most points in a single campaign. They were loaded at just about every position, had numerous dangerous options off the bench and, with Victor Vazquez joining the team in the winter and Justin Morrow emerging as a Best XI selection, had a better collection of stars than just about any team in MLS history.

They had to battle their way through a pair of ugly series against the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC to advance to MLS Cup, but they got back to the title game. Waiting for them was their 2016 boogeyman. Seattle cruised through the West, beating Vancouver and Houston by a combined margin of 7-0. This week, they became something of a trendy pick. We said they were looser than tense Toronto, that they were more confident than slightly out-of-form TFC.

On Saturday, Toronto flipped that narrative on its head. They controlled the entire match, rolling out a surprise 4-4-2 diamond formation and absolutely waxing the Sounders. They outshot Seattle 22-7, out-possessed the Sounders 57-43, won 58 of 82 total duels and didn’t let Clint Dempsey, Nico Lodeiro and Co. get a single good look at goal. Bradley was masterful in the midfield, Vazquez put on a show in the attacking third and Altidore, hobbled ankle and all, made BMO Field erupt when he scored the game-winner in the 67th minute.

When Vazquez made it 2-0 in second-half stoppage-time, it was no longer a contest. It was a coronation. The sky above the south stands turned red as TFC’s supporters fired up flares. The smell of cordite wafted. The stadium shook. Bradley raised MLS Cup on the podium. Giovinco had his turn next, lifting a trophy that almost looked bigger than him. Toronto native and academy product Jonathan Osorio, who had an excellent game in the midfield, appeared emotional as he leaned into Altidore on the podium.

After everyone had had their turn with the trophy, Morrow carried it over to the supporters’ section. There, in the beating heart of BMO, the team congregated for their celebratory Viking clap, a postgame playoff tradition begun last fall. Altidore boomed on the bass drum, the wall of humanity in front of him responding with their slow clap. Bradley, who’s known Altidore since the two were teenage teammates at US Soccer’s residency program in Bradenton, Florida, kneeled next to the drum, arms wrapped around his two young children.

Bezbatchenko was in the throng, too, not far from assistant GM Corey Wray. A Toronto native, Wray has been with TFC since the beginning. The first intern in club history, he spent his first shift checking in players at the team’s inaugural open tryout in December 2006. He survived their infamous 0-9-0 start in 2012, and endured all of the coaching changes, front-office shakeups and miserable seasons that polluted the early years of the club. TFC is family to him, literally. He met his wife Jaime McMillan through the team, where she still works as director of administration and operations.

For Wray, tonight was about more than a title or a treble. The championship was about validation, making all those years of professional pain, all the long seasons, all the turmoil worth it.  

“When we scored the first goal, it was a huge, huge relief. It was unlike anything I ever felt in my life,” he said, fighting back tears. “Then the final whistle, it was kind of surreal until I saw my mom and dad, to be honest. I hate to be corny, but they’ve helped me throughout all these years and helped me in tough times when it was the worst team in the world. They’ve been there to pick me back up and push me and I have to give thanks to them and people like my wife, who works here and is a huge, huge supporter of me. It has been tough and there have been times that you want to give up, but this makes it all worthwhile. I hate to be cliché, but I really do feel that way.”

It was a similar feeling for Bradley. Through all of his ups and downs with the national team, Bradley has always been a rock for TFC. He’s more responsible than any other individual for transforming the club from a perennial bottom feeder to a model for all of MLS. His bold decision to trade Rome for Toronto paved the way for Altidore and Giovinco’s arrival, and he and Vanney have molded the locker room in his image.

Tonight, his move paid off in the biggest possible way. Tonight, he and Toronto made history.

“It was surreal. It’s why I came. It’s why we came. It’s been the dream for the last four years. And after things went last year you can say that in the last year it’s been an obsession,” he said. “Things for me kind of came full circle yesterday. I was driving. I remember the first night I got to Toronto. I landed at the airport and the route the driver took from the airport to downtown, came down 427 and then came in on the Gardiner. And countless times I’ve been at this stadium these last four years I’ve never once taken that same route. And I got into an Uber yesterday morning and I let him take me any way he wanted and he took me down 427 and in on the Gardiner to the stadium.

“I’m not necessarily a huge believer in fate and things like that. I think Greg said it a week ago and I like the way he said it – I believe in hard work and preparation and you make your own luck and you give everything you have to put things in your own hands. But there was a moment yesterday morning when I was in the car and it dawned on me that I’ve been here four years and I haven’t take that drive to the stadium once. To have it come full circle and to finish things off this year in this way, when Jozy scored I knew that was it.”

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