‘It was so Close’: Toronto FC’s Breakthrough Season Ended Inches Short of MLS Championship
TORONTO — BMO Field’s Tunnel Club was more serene than usual Saturday night.
Dropping a home MLS Cup on penalties will do that to an organization, its fans and its players, none of whom showed at Toronto FC’s post-championship party at Muzik nightclub.
Who could blame them? The Reds were still in disbelief after manhandling the Seattle Sounders for 120 minutes, only to see their MLS Cup dreams dashed when Justin Morrow’s penalty pinged off the crossbar in front of a record crowd at BMO Field.
But then there was a voice inside TFC’s in-stadium pub, mere steps from TFC’s dressing room. Two little boys had spotted the club’s GM, Tim Bezbatchenko.
“Can we have your autograph?” the boys asked. Bezbatchenko politely obliged.
“Good job this year,” one of the boys continued, a reminder that the Reds indeed inspired this season.
“It was so close.”
Inches, one could argue. Stefan Frei’s save of a Jozy Altidore header in extra time will go down as one of the great stops in MLS Cup history. Another inch up and to the right, and Toronto would be holding a parade Monday morning.
Sebastian Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio and Tosaint Ricketts also missed good — essentially open — looks that would have provided TFC the goal it chased for two hours. Shots were 19-3 in favour of TFC, which also finished with a 7-0 advantage in terms of attempts on target.
Even Sounders bench boss Brian Schmetzer admitted post-game he wished his side would have “played better.” They were the second-best squad on the pitch, buoyed by Frei and TFC’s uncanny ability to squander the good looks it managed to create against a bunkering defence.
“We played very well,” Michael Bradley said inside an empty TFC dressing room post-game. “There’s no two ways about it. That’s a good team — they have good players.
“But we played very well,” Bradley continued. “If that stat is correct — they didn’t shoot on goal once — obviously, they had a few half-chances. But by and large, they weren’t dangerous.
“It’s a night where if you can get the first goal, you’re getting the second and the third goal as well. We couldn’t unlock the game with a play. Obviously, it allows a team like that to stick around. You give full credit to them for what they put into it and the way they were so committed to keeping things tight.”
There’s the hope that TFC fans can get past Saturday night and look back over the entire season — the home-opening win over Dallas, the Voyageurs Cup, the first playoff win, the extra time victory over the Montreal Impact. It was special despite the finish.
“After what TFC has been through, (we) captured the hearts of Toronto fans,” Bezbatchenko said. “I don’t think anyone would have believed this was possible after what this club went through. People know now what it can be. They know this group is full of fighters and will fight for this city.”
As TFC president Bill Manning told Postmedia ahead of Saturday night’s loss, this off-season will be about “fine-tuning.” Turnover is expected to be minimal when the Reds release their roster decisions Monday afternoon. Very few options will be declined, though a few players are out of contract.
Midfielder Will Johnson won’t have long to figure out his future. He’s open to staying in Toronto but doesn’t want to be a bit part. He therefore has decisions to make as a free agent: Test the water and follow the biggest offer, or renegotiate a new contract and fight for playing time and titles in Toronto.
Expect Bradley’s name to frequent Google searches this winter. While TFC’s captain is being courted by mid- to lower-table teams in Italy, the Reds haven’t seen any firm offers from sizable clubs they or Bradley would consider. It would likely take an extraordinary offer to see him leave Toronto this off-season.
It then becomes about bringing in the two or three pieces that could tip things further in TFC’s favour come next season. An attacking midfielder could be top of that list, given the lack of goal production behind Giovinco and Altidore this season.
Regardless, Toronto FC’s roster is going to look similar to that of this playoff run. Cohesion and familiarity has been a pillar of Manning’s vision. It’s why Vanney and Bezbatchenko can be expected to receive contract extensions in 2017.
“I’m not satisfied until we’re holding that Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, but this was a very successful season from many different angles and perspectives,” Bezbatchenko said.
“I’m just proud of our coaching staff and the players. I wouldn’t feel that way if I didn’t think it was a successful season.”
One that was — as two boys put it — “so close” to bringing MLSE its first title.