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Big Read: Recapping a Toronto FC regular season like no other

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There has never been, and never will be, another season quite like the 2020 season in Major League Soccer.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC
Toronto FC prepare for a game at the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Canada—There has never been, and never will be, another season quite like the 2020 season in Major League Soccer (MLS).

With COVID-19 running rampant around the world, on March 12, the MLS season came to a halt as leagues globally postponed, and in some cases cancelled, their campaigns.

But after a few months off that left fans twiddling their thumbs eagerly anticipating a return to play, MLS stepped up as the first men’s sport in North America to return with the MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida, before teams were able to return back to their home markets a month later for Phase 2 of the regular season.

Somehow, someway, MLS found a way, and Toronto FC, despite playing the majority of the year away from BMO Field, managed to finish second place in the regular season, just three points back of the Supporters Shield-winning Philadelphia Union.

With The Reds set to play their first MLS Cup Playoff game on November 24 against one of Nashville SC, the New England Revolution, or the Montreal Impact, let’s look back at how they got there.


KICKOFF: Not so fast!

MLS: Toronto FC at San Jose Earthquakes
Alejandro Pozuelo scores the first goal of Toronto FC’s 2020 season.
(Cox/USA TODAY)

Back in February, the world seemed like a normal place. Fans were in stadiums around the world or could watch in restaurants with family and friends—things that seem incredibly foreign just nine months later. At the time, Toronto FC’s biggest concern was the health and status of captain Michael Bradley, who had underwent ankle surgery in the preseason and was expected to miss the next four months of action.

So with their captain sidelined, Toronto FC’s season kicked off the earliest it ever had: February 29 with an away game in San Jose. Thanks to goals from Alejandro Pozuelo and Richie Laryea, TFC looked like they were set to open the season with all three points, but it was not to be.

Oswaldo Alanís, with one of the last kicks of the game, swung in a free kick in the 94th minute that found the back of the net, stealing the Earthquakes a point. It was an interesting start to the season for Toronto FC, but not nearly as crazy as the weeks and months that followed.

Seven days later, the club returned home to BMO Field where they would play their first home game of the season—a match which would also end up as their final home fixture in front of fans along the Lakeshore in 2020.

But it was a memorable one.

Up against an always-formidable New York City FC side, TFC’s home opener saw the MLS debut of Ifunanyachi Achara. Selected 25th overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Achara made an immediate impact in his first career appearance, stealing the show at BMO Field by scoring the lone goal in the 81st minute and instantly becoming a fan-favourite.

With four points through two games, The Reds were off to a hot start, but that momentum would be stopped in its tracks just five days later.

On March 12, 2020, following the advice of health officials, the MLS season was suspended due to the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial target was to be back playing after 30 days, but with cases of the virus steadily increasing...


MLS IS BACK: The emergence of Ayo

Toronto FC v New England Revolution - MLS Is Back Tournament (Reaves/Getty)

It would be 128 long, grueling days before Toronto FC took the field again for a competitive match.

Not wanting to risk the health and safety of their players, coaches and staff, the league became creative while planning their return to action. MLS drew up the first-ever blueprint for the MLS Is Back Tournament—a World Cup-style competition in a bubble environment at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Florida.

As the league lobbied around ideas of how to get the season back rolling, the good news for TFC was that Bradley was able to recover from offseason ankle surgery, missing only two games; but, the bad news was that The Reds would have to deal with another serious blow to their attacking arsenal: On July 2, just days before the team departed to Orlando, rookie Achara would tear his ACL, costing him the remainder of his rookie season.

It was just another chapter in what has been an adversity-filled campaign.

Toronto FC were drawn into Group C at the MLS is Back Tournament, along with D.C. United, the New England Revolution and the Montreal Impact, marking a return to play for the first time in over four months.

The club, risking their health and well-being amid the global pandemic, traveled down to Orlando, a place many described as ‘the epicentre’ of the potentially fatal virus. The team, along with other clubs, quarantined and stayed isolated at the Dolphin and Swan Resort, away from their respective families back home.

And on July 10, as Toronto FC were supposed to finally make their long-awaited return-to-action at the tournament again D.C. United, the club hit another snag. As we woke up early in anticipation for a 9 a.m. kickoff, we’d learn the harsh and serious reality of the new world that we lived in, with quarantine regulations stealing headlines.

The match against D.C. United would end up being delayed twice: once because The Reds arrived in Florida late after a member of their traveling party started to experience symptoms related to COVID-19, and a second time because of concerns about potentially positive COVID tests while in Florida.

The subsequent tests, thankfully, turned out as ‘false positives’ and the match against D.C. United would eventually be played on July 13—128 days after the game against New York City FC.

Like the season opener in San Jose all the way back in February, a game which felt like it had been played in a different season entirely, The Reds had jumped out to the early lead within minutes thanks to a pair of goals from newfound striker Ayo Akinola, as the 20 year old spearheaded the TFC attack with Jozy Altidore (fitness) sidelined.

Unfortunately once again, late goals from Federico Higuain and Frédéric Brillant saw D.C. steal a draw, an opportunity missed for Toronto FC to jump out to an early lead in the standings.

Not to be outdone by his brace in the MLS Is Back opener, Akinola one-upped himself in the second game against Montreal. The budding star continued his breakout tournament with a hat-trick, an important trio of goals in a 4-3 victory over TFC’s archrival.

The victory put Toronto at the top of Group C alongside the New England Revolution, who they would play out a 0-0 draw with a few days later, ensuring The Reds first place in the group and a spot in the Round of 16.

In the Round of 16, coach Greg Vanney would turn to 17 year old Jayden Nelson to start on the wing against NYCFC on July 26, but goals from Jesús Medina, Valentín Castellanos and Maxi Moralez saw The Pigeons take a commanding 3-0, spoiling the rookie’s first-team debut. Patrick Mullins would net a consolation goal in the 87th minute, but it was too little too late, and TFC were sent home from Orlando earlier than they would’ve liked.


HOME AND NATIVE LAND: TFC in-form

SOCCER: SEP 09 MLS - Toronto FC at Montreal Impact

2020 was full of surprises, and not long after the conclusion of the MLS Is Back tournament, there would be another one. It was decided that the three Canadian MLS clubs would play each other three times, and that the team with the most points over those six games would be the MLS representative in the Canadian Championship final, with a new format.

The games also counted as MLS regular season games, meaning three points were up for grabs in each of the six games against Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The reason for this format was due to the travel restrictions across the Canada-U.S. border. The American teams continued their season in their home stadiums while the all-Canadian series of games took place up North, also in their regular stadiums, albeit without fans.

The favourites heading into the mini-tournament, Toronto FC came flying out of the gates, with a trio of clean sheet victories seeing them jump out in front of the Whitecaps and Impact, starting with a 3-0 victory over Vancouver in Toronto.

Pablo Piatti scored his first two goals as a Toronto FC player in that match—including an absolute screamer for his first as a Red—with a Nick DeLeon strike sealing a 3-0 win.

Three days later they made it two in a row with a 1-0 win over the ‘Caps, following that up with a 1-0 win in Montreal a week later.

The fourth game in the all-Canadian portion of the season, however, was... interesting. With the chance to tie the game from the penalty spot in first-half stoppage time, best friends Pozuelo and Piatti decided to try an audacious spot-kick routine.

Instead of taking a shot, which he’d be expected to score, Pozuelo decided to tap the ball forward, allowing a rushing Piatti to fire home what they believed to be a brilliant goal. As cool as it would’ve been, the referee deemed that Piatti entered the penalty area too early and the goal was disallowed. The Reds would go on to lose that game 1-0, their first MLS regular season lost in 17 matches (over a calendar year).

Wanting to bounce back with a win in Vancouver in game number five, The Reds again failed to pick up any points, losing a disappointing 3-2 tie at BC Place. Goals from childhood friends Lucas Cavallini and Jonathan Osorio saw the two sides enter halftime tied at one, but a brilliant goal from Michael Baldisimo (and an even better celebration) gave Vancouver the lead again after the break.

Alejandro Pozuelo would tie it up in the 71st minute, but moments later Jake Nerwinski scored the game-winning goal, putting the pressure on TFC to win their sixth and final game.

Needing all three points against the Impact to move atop the standings and earn a potential spot in the 2020 Canadian Championship, Toronto FC were saved by some late heroics from Jozy Altidore.

Tied at one and destined for a draw, it was TFC’s turn to score a late goal. Altidore ran onto a perfect lob over the backline from Nick DeLeon and slotted the ball home for the 89th-minute winner before holding his finger up to his mouth, telling the 250 socially-distanced fans in attendance to be quiet.

That goal, plus a memorable Vancouver victory over Montreal a week later, saw Toronto earn the coveted spot in the Canadian Championship final, where they’re expected to take on Forge FC—winners of the Canadian Premier League’s Island Games.

It was an unconventional way to decide the Canadian Championship finalist, but 2020 is an unconventional year.


BRASS BONANZA: A roller coaster ride

SOCCER: OCT 24 MLS - Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union

Following the six-game Canadian portion of the season, the three MLS clubs North of the border needed to join their American colleagues. With a legal requirement to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Canada every time they crossed the border, it was a near-impossible task to have Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal play in their home markets for “phase two” of the MLS return to action.

Vancouver decided to share a stadium with the Portland Timbers, and Montreal opted to share with the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC in New Jersey. Toronto FC, however, took a different approach, opting to secure a stadium of their own—deciding on Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, home of the UConn Huskies football team.

Hartford would become their new home over the coming weeks and months, hosting six regular-season games down the stretch. After conceding another late goal on the road to D.C. United saw them settle for a draw in their first game of “Phase 2”, The Reds moved onto Red Bull Arena for a third meeting with NYCFC.

Already with a clean sheet to his name this season, goalkeeper Alex Bono would once again step up in limited opportunity. The former TFC No. 1 was heroic against New York, turning away eight shots to post another shutout. And as he often does against NYCFC, Pozuelo converted from the penalty spot to earn TFC all three points. The goal came in the 90th minute, continuing the trend of late goals being scored/conceded in their matches.

From there, Toronto FC returned to their ‘home away from home’, East Hartford, for their first two games at Rentschler Field.

Up first, it was a marquee match against a then-first-place Columbus Crew SC. After a Chris Mavinga own-goal saw Toronto down one at half-time, The Reds came out firing after the break. Jozy Altidore scored the first goal of the Hartford era, tying the game and sending “Brass Bonanza” blasting around the empty stadium for the first time. The song, a reference to the goal song used by the Hartford Whalers during their time in the NHL, was a great touch from the team.

Pozuelo and Laryea would also score, giving Toronto FC a 3-1 victory in their temporary stadium. The third goal from Lareya was a thing of beauty—one that was nominated for MLS Goal of the Season.

The win over Columbus was the second in a run of five consecutive wins for Toronto FC, as the club also picked up maximum points over the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union in East Hartford their next game before winning away to New England and FC Cincinnati.

The winning streak came to an end on October 14 with a 1-1 draw with the Red Bulls. A moment of magic from Caden Clark saw the points split in that one.

After a 1-0 win over Atlanta United on Oct. 18, extending their unbeaten run to nine games, Toronto FC had a 60 per cent chance at the Supporters’ Shield, according to oddsmakers FiveThirtyEight.

TFC seemed to be peaking at the right time, but then it all came crashing down.

Playing in Pennsylvania against the Philadelphia Union on Oct. 24, a shorthanded Toronto FC team were humbled 5-0 by the Union, thanks in large part to a hat trick by Sergio Santos. The Union took it to Toronto in front of a sparse number of home supporters—a place they’d go on to finish the season a perfect 9-0! Wouldn’t it be nice if TFC were able to play at home?

Nevertheless, the road to the end of the season was a shaky one for an injury-riddle Toront side. TFC would lose their next game to NYCFC 1-0 before a late Alejandro Pozuelo penalty (yes, again) salvaged points from Inter Miami in a 2-1 victory.

Despite the roller coaster ending, on Decision Day, Toronto FC were still one of two teams in contention for the league title, carrying just an 18 per cent chance at winning the Shield into their final match of the 2020 regular season.

Taking on the high-pressing New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena, Toronto would concede a pair of goals in quick succession in the first half, before Tsubasa Endoh’s first goal of the season brought the club to within one in the second half. It would be too little too late, however, as Toronto couldn't find a second goal, falling 2-1 and finishing second overall in MLS.

Losing three of four going into the playoffs obviously isn't ideal, especially when it costs you a major trophy as well. But if there's any team that will bounce back from a bit of adversity, it's Toronto FC. They've stepped up in big moments before, and they're more than capable of doing it again in the playoffs.


WHAT’S NEXT

SOCCER: NOV 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls

While I’m sure many of us wish that 2020 was behind us, there’s still work to be done.

Toronto FC will try and get healthy and fit before November 24 at 6 pm, where they’ll meet one of Nashville SC, New England Revolution, or the Montreal Impact in their first-round MLS Cup Playoffs matchup. They’ll learn who their opponent will be on Friday.

But regardless of what happens, for a season filled with adversity and difficult, unusual circumstances, they’ve already done a heck of a job, and should be incredibly proud.

But the job’s not finished yet.

We know what this team is capable of, and we know that they’re typically a squad who steps up in the postseason.

Can they muster up enough energy, enough will to do it again in 2020?