Everyone’s Toronto FC story starts somewhere.
MLS’ first Canadian club was blessed with a die-hard, loyal core of day-one supporters but each year, it adds a few more on top.
There is never a better opportunity to do that than during the playoffs, and if TFC can conjure up even a fraction of last year’s magic there will be no shortage of new Reds born in the process.
So if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to that soccer team down at Exhibition Place and were thinking of catching a playoff game or two, we’re here to lend a helping hand.
Where do I start?
First thing’s first: the single most important tip we can give you is to grab tickets and get down to BMO Field.
If you’re going to fall in love with this team - or perhaps even the sport, if soccer is totally new to you - it will almost certainly happen within its walls.
The bad news is it’s an expensive time of year. You’re looking at upwards of $100 per seat on resale sites such as StubHub for the next home game - Sunday’s Eastern Conference semi-final second leg against the New York Red Bulls.
You could also give the supporters-run ticket exchange on Facebook a try - tickets are sold for face value only there.
The good news? There’s no sporting experience in this city quite like a TFC playoff game.
In fact, you can take ‘playoff’ out of that sentence and it would still be true. The only crowd that comes close on a fan-enthusiasm level is the Raptors’, and that’s a completely different, game-ops-driven vibe.
There’s music and fireworks and all that noise at TFC, too, but once a ball is kicked it’s all about the players on the field, the fans surrounding them and the relationship between the two.
It’s hard to put into words, so just watch this:
That’s an amazing video that still makes me shiver a little bit every time I watch it, but it’s nothing compared to actually being there.
With that out of the way, let’s get you up to speed on the team, the league and the playoffs.
How do the MLS playoffs work?
It may be soccer, but it’s still North American. Unlike most European leagues, which crown their champion based on the team that has the most points at the end of what is known over here as the regular season, MLS has the playoffs.
There’s four rounds in total.
The first is called the knockout round and involves the teams ranked third to sixth in each of the two conferences playing one-off, loser-goes-home matches, like the wild-card games in MLB. Third hosts sixth and fourth is at home to fifth.
The winners of those ties then join the top-two teams in their conference for the conference semi-finals, with first playing against the lowest remaining seed.
Toronto won the Eastern Conference this year - more on that in a minute - so they had a bye through the knockout round and now play the New York Red Bulls, who finished sixth in the East, in the conference semi-finals.
The conference semi-finals and finals are played over two legs, with the lower seed at home first before the second leg is played on the higher seed’s turf.
There’s a little complication to throw into the two-legged ties called the away goals rule. If the aggregate score - that is, the score of each leg added together - is tied at the end of the second leg, the team that scored the most goals in their away game wins.
So if Toronto draw 2-2 away to the Red Bulls and then 1-1 at BMO Field, they go through.
If both the aggregate score and away goals are level, the tie goes to 30 minutes of extra time (away goals do not factor in at the end of that) and then, if needed, a penalty shootout.
Once the conference semi-finals and finals are done, the MLS Cup final - which features the champion of each conference and is MLS’ equivalent of the Super Bowl - is a one-off game like the knockout round.
That’s played at the home of the team who had more points during the regular season.
What’s this about a Supporters’ Shield?
The Supporters’ Shield is the trophy given to MLS’ regular-season champion.
And hey, Toronto won it!
They did it while collecting an all-time best 69 points, too, which means that this team already has a legitimate place in the conversation of the league’s greatest ever.
That means they’re the favourites to win the MLS Cup, so yeah - this is a very, very big year for the club.
Toronto have also already won the Canadian Championship, which means they’ll be representing Canada in 2018 against the best teams from North and Central America in the CONCACAF Champions League.
They’ve been dominant all year, to put it bluntly, but still have a lot of work to do to claim the trophy they want the most.
One of the perks of winning the Shield is guaranteed home-field advantage. TFC will play the second leg of the conference semi-finals at home, and if they beat the Red Bulls the same will go for the conference finals.
Get through that, and they’ll be hosting the MLS Cup final for the second year in a row. (Just don’t mention last year.)
How did TFC get so good?
You may have a vague recollection of TFC basically being a laughing stock for a while.
This team was miserable for a long time after it joined MLS in 2007 but much like the Maple Leafs and Raptors, MLSE’s latest front-office appointments have proven to be very successful.
The general manager is Tim Bezbatchenko, who - much like Brendan Shanahan - was a rising star at the league office before being handed the reins in Toronto.
Greg Vanney, a former USA international who enjoyed a successful playing career in MLS and in Europe, has emerged over the past couple of years as one of North America’s most talented young head coaches.
They were just getting started when Bill Manning joined the club as president after establishing himself as one of the league’s top executives during eight seasons at Real Salt Lake, who won an MLS Cup and were a perennial contender under his watch despite a limited budget.
When it comes to player acquisitions, Toronto’s turnaround has been driven by the expensive arrivals of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in 2014 and 2015 as designated players.
(MLS clubs are allowed three designated players, who they can pay a salary above the league maximum of approximately $450,000. Toronto’s trio earn over $18 million in total.)
But an impressive squad has been built around them. Toronto have been able to pick up a number of quality MLS veterans, found a few key contributors out of the league’s limited draft and gone shopping in Europe for the likes Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez, both of whom have had excellent seasons this year.
They’ve spent a lot of money, so success should be expected.
But they’re not the only wealthy team in the league and they finished 12 points ahead of second place in the regular season, which is testament to the work Bezbatchenko, Vanney and Manning have done beyond throwing cash around.
Who’s going to be my favourite player?
Like I said, it’s a good team - there’s no shortage of options here.
Alex Bono is one of the better young goalkeepers in North America and has a real shot at playing for the U.S. men’s national team in the future.
Toronto usually start with three players in defence. Eriq Zavaleta is a shut-down centre-back who excels in one-on-one battles and plays to the right of Drew Moor, a 14-year MLS veteran who is the unit’s brain and leader.
To Moor’s left is Mavinga, a fast, athletic defender who is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet and has had a stand-out first year with the club.
Shuttling up and down the wings are Justin Morrow, who is one of the best players in his position (on the left) in MLS and has an uncanny knack for poaching goals, and either Nicolas Hasler or Steven Beitashour opposite.
Hasler is a more dynamic player like Morrow, while Beitashour brings a veteran’s experience to the defensive side of the game while still popping up in attack.
In midfield, Bradley sits in front of the defence and is a cornerstone player, breaking up opposition attacks and initiating Toronto’s own with his use of the ball. He’s the captain and driving force of the team.
Just in front of him are Marky Delgado and Vazquez. Delgado has been one of TFC’s breakout players this year, providing a perfect complement to Bradley and Vazquez with his hard running and quick passing. Vazquez is a graduate of the same youth team at Barcelona as Lionel Messi and is up there with the very best playmakers in MLS.
Then there is the forwards. Giovinco stands at 5’ 4”, was the league’s MVP in 2015 and, well:
That was last week. He does it all the time.
Altidore is a much bigger man and combines raw power with no shortage of skill. At his best, he’s almost unplayable and scored in five consecutive playoff games last year.
You can also expect to see Canadians Jonathan Osorio (a crafty midfielder), Tosaint Ricketts (a lightning-quick forward with a great leap who has been extremely effective off the bench) and Raheem Edwards (a rapid, tricky left-sided player) on a regular basis.
And we would be remiss not to mention Benoit Cheyrou, TFC’s classy, cerebral 36-year-old Frenchman, and Nick Hagglund, a heart-and-soul defender who has been struck down by two knee injuries this year.
Sounds great. When do we start?
Tonight, against the New York Red Bulls, on TSN 4 at 7 p.m. Don’t miss it.