Up until the moment Roman Torres curled his penalty into the back of the net to win the MLS Cup for the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC held out hope. Why wouldn’t they? After all they had overcome to get to this point, recovering after falling behind twice in the Conference Finals, Toronto FC seemed like a team whose time had finally come.
That is what a tifo unveiled over the south end of BMO Field before the match suggested, and Toronto FC’s players seemed to get the message. Throughout the match they dominated, besting the Sounders in almost every statistical category.
But only one was talked about after last night’s match: the fact that the Sounders were the first team in league history to win the MLS Cup without registering a shot on goal. That’s a tough way to have a dream shattered.
“Even when Torres kicked it I thought in my head I felt that we were going to save it, or that he was going to miss,” said a visibly shaken Jonathan Osorio after the match. “I tried to stay positive, everyone tried to stay positive till the end. Sometimes in football this is the way it is, there’s got to be a winner, there’s got to be a loser.”
Yesterday, it was Toronto FC who were forced to accept the loser role, whether it felt fair or not. What will hurt for a while is just how close they came to the winner’s role.
Defensively, this was Toronto’s best performance of the season. The attribute that the club has improved the most over this 2016 season was on full display as it took the Sounders almost the entire 90 minutes to ever register a shot attempt.
Toronto FC forced Seattle to try to play balls forward over the top to Jordan Morris, which played directly into the strengths of their back three. Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and Drew Moor were all dominant in the air all game long, and barely gave Morris an inch.
“That might make it hurt even more,” said Moor of the team’s great defense effort during the match. “We played extremely well, we defended extremely well. It was an open game, but we closed the door when we needed to.”
Just as it has been all playoffs, however, nobody was more central to Toronto’s defensive effort than Michael Bradley. Unfortunately, history will remember Bradley’s match for one moment: a missed, poorly placed, penalty.
During regulation, however, Bradley might have had his best game of the playoffs, which is saying something. According to Who Scored, he had six interceptions, six tackles, three clearances and a shot block. Offensively, he had a pair of key passes, 128 touches and 95 passes.
“At the end of the day it’s a penalty kick and if the keeper goes the right way and you just don’t get it there, those things happen,” said TFC coach Greg Vanney after the match. “I thought he was fantastic for the whole game, I thought he competed hard, he closed people down, he dug things out, he kept the ball moving.”
Vanney has taken his own criticism for what happened in last night’s match as well, especially how late he brought on Tosaint Ricketts, and the fact that he brought him on for Sebastian Giovinco. But whether Giovinco was injured or not, which it turns out he ultimately was, Vanney made the right move.
Ricketts came on and was his generally impactful self. If it wasn’t for a world class save from Ex-TFC keeper Stefan Frei — sidebar, of course it was an ex-TFC player that made the game saving play — that ultimately helped Frei win MLS Cup MVP, it would have been seen as yet another genius substitution from Vanney. Ricketts created two other great chances as well.
Giovinco, meanwhile, was largely held ineffectively by the Seattle backline, especially Torres. His touch looked off, in fact he led the team with nine bad control touches, none of his six shots were on target and he only had one dribble during the match. That’s the statistical way of saying he wasn’t himself.
“He gave me the sign that he couldn’t go any more,” said Vanney in response to the most anticipated post-game question. “And when he feels like he can’t go, then he feels like he’s more of a liability to the group than anything. So that’s the decision. It’s not one that I generally want to make.”
It was hard to watch, a player who has meant so much to this team, to this league, unable to continue in the biggest moment of the season.
Toronto FC’s long-suffering fans didn’t deserve a night like that, watching their team lose on penalty kicks after coming so close during regulation. But they can take solace in the fact that the team left everything on the field yesterday during a cold night at BMO Field.
“This team will only get better from here,” said Osorio after the match. “We know the blueprint of what we need to get to a championship and win a championship. This is a team that is capable of winning a championship game, it just wasn’t our time right now.”