Toronto's long wait to become MLS' premier franchise is already history
TORONTO -- It may have taken 10 seasons, but Toronto FC is finally living up to its potential. TFC booked a spot in MLS Cup final with Wednesday's rollicking 5-2 win (7-5 on aggregate) against chief rivals the Montreal Impact in a match that showcased just about everything that the Reds and this long-suffering sports city have to offer not just Major League Soccer, but the sport in the United States and Canada.
It was easy to see what Toronto could become when it entered the league in 2007. Even though on-field success was elusive during most of the club's first decade, its arrival changed the face of MLS for good.
Toronto's cozy little downtown stadium was a departure from the league's first soccer-specific venues, which were tucked away in the suburbs of places like Dallas and Los Angeles. The BMO Field stands were filled from the start, and mostly stocked not by youth soccer players and their disinterested parents, but by young urban professionals with disposable incomes who liked to drink beer and sing songs. Soon, that fan culture would be adopted in places like Seattle, Philadelphia and Kansas City. But Toronto is where it all began.
"The European supporter culture here and celebrating the game in ways that I think reverberated throughout our country, a lot of that was really born in Toronto," said MLS commissioner Don Garber to reporters at halftime Wednesday.
The only thing missing was a quality product. Until now.
TFC's failures over the years were not out of neglect. The team's owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, were engaged. They spent money. But they also had no idea what a winning organization looked like. That began to change when they tabbed ex-LA Galaxy poohbah Tim Leiweke to run the organization. Leiweke quickly poached whiz kid Tim Bezbatchenko from the league office to be his general manager.
Still, there were fits and starts. Prized designated player Jermain Defoe never settled in Canada and was back in England after an eighth consecutive playoff-less season in 2014. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco joined Michael Bradley as DPs ahead of the 2015 campaign, but TFC finished sixth in the East and made the playoffs for the first time only because MLS added an extra spot in each conference. The Reds ended up being humiliated 3-0 in Montreal in the knockout round.
Leiweke is gone now, but evidence of his influence was everywhere as things began to come together this season. Bezbatchenko's three-year improvement plan -- which centered on acquiring proven MLS players like Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor and Justin Morrow along with high-earning international stars -- has gone off right on schedule. The fans who stuck with the club through thick and thin were rewarded first with a renovated stadium that is now one of the finest in the league. At 36,000 seats, BMO Field is also one of the largest venues in MLS. These days, they have a team to match it.
"You look around and see unbelievable potential in terms of a city, a market, a stadium, a training ground. Every box gets checked," said Reds captain Bradley after the second-leg victory over Montreal. "You look at other clubs around the league, and there are other clubs that check a lot of boxes. I'm not sure there's another club that checks every box.
"I don't think anybody even realizes the potential because the stuff on the field, ultimately the most important thing, up until recently hasn't been right," he added.
Now, at long last, TFC's original promise is finally being realized.
"All week we spoke about what tonight could be," said Bradley. "I think we all had an idea that it could be special in terms of atmosphere, emotion -- in some ways, 10 years of emotion -- coming out in one night."
Then, Bradley told a story that illustrated how relevant TFC has become and, to some extent, the sleeping giant it's always been in MLS' sixth largest market.
"I dropped my son off at school this morning, and I saw -- I swear -- every kid that walked into that elementary school had a TFC jersey on and most of the parents as well. So you could feel it in the city that people have really taken notice. People are proud. People are excited. Tonight was a special night. Ten days from now we want to do one better."
A title would take things to yet another level, and Toronto is the favorite. The Argonauts won the Grey Cup four years ago, but it's been 23 years since the Blue Jays won the World Series. The anticipation in the days leading up to MLS Cup will be off the charts.
Whatever the outcome on Dec. 10, though, TFC's long wait to become MLS' premier franchise is already history.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.