Toronto beats New York City FC to boost fans and exorcise playoff ghosts
When MLS commissioner Don Garber is asked whether the LA Galaxy's signing of David Beckham from Real Madrid in 2007 was the turning point for the league after the cautious years inching out of expansion, he will usually demur and say that the real turning point was Toronto FC entering the league that same year.
The club's instant fan base and game-day experience and the ambitions of its owners seemed to suggest a new paradigm for the league, and certainly any account of the MLS 2.0 years is incomplete without considering Toronto's exuberant arrival on the scene.
Of course, we know what happened next: nothing. Expansion-year teething troubles became sophomore struggles, which became serial failure. Star players came and went, as did numerous coaches, systems and awkwardly constructed rosters, and Toronto repeatedly blew its chance to go to the playoffs.
Starting in 2014, though, something stirred. The signings of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe were a statement of intent, even if the latter turned out to not be quite the "bloody big deal" he was advertised as. But then came the genius of Sebastian Giovinco, a first playoff appearance in 2015 and, this year, the team's first home postseason games.
The spectacle of those playoff games has almost been a wake-up call to remind the league that Toronto itself was once, culturally at least, a "bloody big deal" and that it expects to be again, this time on the field.
From the eruption of joy when Giovinco (who else?) hooked home Jozy Altidore's cross vs. Philadelphia on Wednesday night, to the even greater explosion of relief when Altidore finally broke New York City FC's resistance on Sunday, it was almost as if the league had pulled a brand-new, fanatically supported team out of its hat.
Lots of factors have helped -- the expanded stadium has made for an expanded atmosphere -- but there's also the sense that finally Toronto FC have not only the right designated players but also the right players around them.
Yes, Altidore got his goal, Giovinco buzzed everywhere and Bradley helped shut down David Villa and bully the New York midfield from getting any foothold it might have had in the game. But Toronto has padded its roster with MLS experience, and those players showed up big as well: Drew Moor vocally organized the defense, Justin Morrow overlapped, and there was even a cameo from Will Johnson as Greg Vanney's side sought to manage the frantic final few minutes.
And those moments were key. After a stirring national anthem and a game that had kicked off in a buzz of anticipation, NYCFC had actually done a good job of quieting the crowd in the first half, even if they didn't do much to unduly worry the hosts.
But as Toronto's fullbacks pushed further forward in the second half and Giovinco and Altidore began dropping deep to see more of the ball in the second half, the game began to tilt toward the Canadian side. As the minutes ticked by, it was possible to detect a mood shift in the crowd from anxious to expectant as the team in red poured forward -- an anxiety broken in the delirious climax to the game as Toronto FC's players celebrated their second goal with their fans.
As the celebrations continued after the final whistle, there was a sense that whatever happens in the return leg, this experience is firmly in the memory bank now. Remember that these same fans have spent years living more in thwarted hope than expectation, but whether their next home playoff game comes this November or next October, they will always have the events of this week and all they have done to help banish many of the frustrating memories from their history.
Those cheers might have been more for a collective catharsis that was almost a decade in arriving than for a goal or two that took 84 minutes to arrive for the 11 men on the field.
Toronto has exorcised a lot of ghosts already in this campaign and, as expectation grows, who knows how far it can go now that it's finally here.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.