TORONTO — Toronto FC’s magnificent year was missing one essential element. And so the fans streamed into BMO Field on Saturday, bundled in multi-layers and winter caps for another December showdown with Seattle.
The home team had recorded one of the best regular seasons in MLS history and won its domestic cup competition, but to raise a third trophy, Toronto would have to avenge last year’s heartbreak against the Sounders.
As afternoon turned into evening on the chilly shores of Lake Ontario, the story was eerily similar as Toronto failed to crack goalkeeper Stefan Frei. In the 67th minute, however, Jozy Altidore collected Sebastian Giovinco’s wonderful pass in stride and scored past Frei en route to a 2-0 victory before a sellout crowd of 30,584.
Victor Vazquez secured the championship with a goal deep into stoppage time.
“Lifting this trophy has been an obsession for the last 364 days,” captain Michael Bradley said. “To get ourselves back here, to give ourselves another crack at it, has been — honestly, there’s no other word for it — obsession.”
And with it, an organization that needed nine seasons to qualify for its first playoff berth two years ago could stake a claim to MLS history: Several teams have won two trophies in a year, but until Saturday, not one had raised three of them.
Coach Greg Vanney said he believes this Toronto squad is the best in the league’s 22 seasons. “And we’re still writing our story,” he added.
For Altidore and Bradley, longtime U.S. national teammates, the triumph brought a dose of redemption after the failed World Cup qualifying campaign this fall. Both had been targeted by fans in other cities for the American disaster, and while winning MLS Cup will not scrub the national team blemish from their legacies, it proved their value to the club and league.
The overriding incentive, however, was the home defeat to Seattle in a penalty kick tiebreaker last year.
“You could tell that was a motivated franchise — motivated coach, motivated players,” Sounders Coach Brian Schmetzer said.
Bradley was in command, shielding the back line and launching an attack that outshot the visitors 12-1 in the first half and 22-7 overall.
“His bald head was everywhere,” Altidore said.
With Bradley in charge, Toronto was the better side over almost every second of the 90 minutes. Frei’s handiwork and the hosts’ missed opportunities left the result in the balance.
Altidore, however, found the net midway through the second half.
It started in the back and followed a direct route. The final link was provided by Giovinco, who timed a through ball of perfect weight to Altidore piercing Seattle’s back line. The powerful striker touched the ball away from the closing Joevin Jones and lifted a left-footed shot over the advancing Frei.
Up to that point, Toronto’s patience had been tested. A goal would have done wonders for the trajectory of the match, placing it on a refreshing course after last year’s goal-less affair.
Perhaps it was too much to ask from a team that had faltered in similar circumstances last winter and had labored at home this postseason. Giovinco, an attacker with mesmerizing skills, seemed caught up in the moment at times.
When Toronto was on target, Frei intervened.
The first half was a case of Toronto’s sustained punches against Seattle’s mild jabs. Toronto’s one-touch passing, collaboration and use of the flanks left the Sounders chasing the ball.
Nonetheless, the match stayed scoreless to halftime.
“After a year like last year [in the final] and a half like that, you have to keep your foot on the gas and keep trying to create chances and not be afraid to give up something, have the endeavor to go win the game,” Vanney said. “That was one of our big statements this week: Be bold.”
Toronto remained bold. Meanwhile, the Sounders had little to offer. When they did have the makings of something dangerous, Bradley extinguished it.
Three minutes after Frei made a terrific save on Giovinco, Altidore scored his second consecutive game-winning goal.
Later, with Seattle pressed forward, Toronto’s Armando Cooper hit the right post with an acutely angled shot. Vazquez deflected the ball into the vacant net from a step away.
Soon, the icy celebration was underway — one that had been a year in the making.
“It’s been a long time, a long journey to get here,” Vanney said. “Heartache along the way, but to get here tonight and to be able to lift a trophy with [the fans] and in front of them has been an incredible journey.”
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