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Experiencing Toronto’s frozen MLS Cup final from the press box

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From a stirring rendition of ‘O Canada’ to dejection in the corridors of BMO Field.

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

All week leading up to the MLS Cup final there was talk about how cold it was going to be at BMO Field. Somehow, we were all still woefully unprepared. The influx of major media organizations covering the final meant that a number of us were pushed outside into an auxiliary press box.

I was lucky enough to sit under a temporary structure that at least had some resistance from the wind. Many of the approximately 250 other accredited media members were not so lucky. They sat in the stands in sections 226 and 227 with nothing to protect them from the freeze.

Major League Soccer was kind enough to provide some blankets and hand-warmers, but it wasn’t nearly enough. By the time kickoff rolled around I had a blanket covering my legs, a scarf covering my face and those trusty hand-warmers at the ready while I tried to write and tweet. They ended up being stuffed in the ends of my shoes to keep my feet from freezing off.

But no intervention by Mother Nature was going to take away how special of a night this was for Toronto FC. That was quickly evidenced by how loud - and full, for that matter - the stadium was at kickoff. It was the biggest crowd that has ever watched a TFC match at BMO Field. The national anthem, sung by the fans behind a wall of scarves, brought a different kind of chills.

Toronto FC fans during the Canadian national anthem. (Credit: Luke Galati)
Luke Galati

The game itself was a bit anti-climactic in the end in the way one-game finals often are in soccer. Toronto were on the front foot for the majority of the match but made sure to keep the game as controlled as possible in the process.

For almost the entire 90 minutes and extra time, Toronto looked destined to win the match. They had all kinds of chances, and it only seemed like a matter of time before they found the back of the net. Even after Stefan Frei robbed Jozy Altidore in the now-iconic moment of the game, it seemed like he was only delaying the inevitable.

Then time ran out, and uncertainty began to creep into the stadium. I was sitting beside a couple of media members from Seattle, and we had the conversation that I’m sure was happening everywhere else in the stadium: penalties were a cruel way for this match to end, no matter who won.

All of a sudden the intensity ramped up. The crowd was audibly nervous. In the press box, media members who have covered this team for years turned away, unable to watch. It was that nerve-wracking.

When Michael Bradley missed, the stadium went silent, save for the travelling fans in the upper deck. It was an odd moment: the white noise of the crowd throughout the match suddenly isolated to that small section of the stadium. But boy, did they make themselves heard.

Then Irwin stopped Alvaro Fernandez, and all of the sudden the hope that Toronto could win came rushing back through BMO Field. When Joevin Jones stepped up to take the next Sounders penalty, the writer from Seattle next to me shook his head. He wondered aloud why the team would let someone so young take such a crucial kick. It felt like the momentum had shifted, like he was going to miss.

Jones confidently buried his shot into the upper-right-hand corner. Irwin had gone the right way, but there was no stopping the shot. Seattle never looked back after that.

If only Justin Morrow’s penalty had been an inch lower, maybe things would have been different. But when the defender struck the underside of the bar and the ball bounced out, all of the life was once again sucked out of the stands.

Roman Torres stepped up and buried his game=winning penalty just moments later and the noise from that upper corner grew even louder. The rest of the stadium fell into a stunned silence. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end, but all of the sudden it was over.

Toronto FC players react to losing the MLS Cup final. (Credit: Luke Galati).
Luke Galati

Fans tried to give one last uplifting thank you to the team, one last ‘TFC’ chant. It felt a little hollow, however, as the fans’ voices betrayed their heartbreak. After that, I have never seen BMO Field empty so quickly - save, again, for that jubilant group of Seattle supporters.

Next to me, perhaps finally understanding the gravity of the situation, a Seattle writer began sobbing. I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have done the same; it wasn’t that I cared that much, it was just the intensity of it all. He composed himself quickly and the Sounders moved to centre of a fairly empty BMO Field to lift the trophy.

Afterwards, in the tunnel outside of the dressing room, Larry Tanenbaum was given a commiserate hug. This was the closest the MLSE chairman had come to seeing one of his teams win a major trophy, and the emotion of falling short was written on his face. Tim Leiweke, a man who was crucial in taking this team to their current heights, stood nearby having just watched them fall at the final hurdle.

The Toronto dressing room was like nothing I have ever seen. It has been quiet before - I’ve been in there for plenty of losses - but never like this. Even when the players spoke, they did so in low, baritone voices, barely audible at times. There were many players in the room, but all of them were a thousand miles away. Jonathan Osorio looked the roughest of the bunch.

The hometown kid had to sit through multiple interviews, saying what he could but mostly coming back to one central statement: “It wasn’t meant to be.” The only player smiling was Drew Moor, who always seems to be the happiest of the bunch, but even he had visible pain in his eyes.

The Sounders celebrate their MLS Cup 2016 victory. (Credit: Luke Galati)

As the status of the players being interviewed increased — Altidore talked to the media, and then Bradley — the scrums around them grew in size. Reporters climbed on lockers just so they could get soundbites from players, who did not look too pleased with all the attention.

The players then shuffled out of the dressing room looking like a group of zombies. Their friends and family congratulated them on a season well fought, but it was clear that the true nature of what the team had accomplished this year would take time to sink in. The wounds were still too raw. One player’s friend asked where they were going out to celebrate that night, to which he responded, “dude, we just lost the final”.

Before I left BMO Field, I took the elevator to the third floor one more time and looked out at the stadium below. The stands were now fully empty, with only a few members of the cleanup crew out on the field. There was still a smattering of green and blue confetti on the pitch.

How different things could have been if that confetti was red. But as Osorio said, it wasn’t meant to be. Not on that night.

Who knows when the MLS Cup trophy will next be present for a match at BMO Field? It could be next year, it could be longer. But having experienced that night, December 10, the culmination of a playoff run that saw this team embraced by the city of Toronto and finally do something worthy of that love, it seems like it will be sooner rather than later.