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Why tonight matters for Toronto FC

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As the Reds prepare for the second leg of the Canadian Championship final, a reminder of what is at stake.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

My obsession (aside from Toronto FC) the past three months has been the newest Zelda game on the Nintendo Switch, Breath of the Wild.

It features a fascinating story and main quest, but some of the most fun I had was playing one of the countless side quests. At first I was hesitant to take my focus away from the main quest, but after a few of them I quickly learned that the rewards and lessons gained from the side quests didn’t distract me from my main goals, but rather made the experience richer - and prepared me as I ventured towards the story’s climax.

And that brings us to tonight’s Canadian Championship final between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.

Make no mistake about it, the main quest for this team will always be the MLS Cup. It’s nice, though, to see the club and its fan base hold the various side quests this year, whether it be the Trillium Cup or the Voyageurs Cup, in higher regard.

There’s many a sports cliche that I can badly paraphrase about winning being a habit, not an accident or winning begetting more winning, but suffice to say that there is some merit in those old tropes. Rarely do teams in professional sports stumble ass backwards into a winning culture. Sure, there is the occasional plucky underdog that goes on a Cinderella run, but those are largely exceptions and it’s not uncommon to see those teams stumble right back to being bad. Exhibit A: Leicester City of the Premier League.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, what sports have shown us time and again is that winning teams have a culture that pervades the entire franchise. From the players on the field, to the front office, to the coaches, to the training staff, and so on and so on. Winning teams carry themselves with a different aura, a swagger that can only be learned from sustained winning and a learned climb on how to not only win, but to avoid defeat.

No one will mistake the Trillium Cup as a trophy on par with the MLS Cup, but when those players run to the south stand to celebrate, it leaves a lasting taste of how sweet victory can really be. Fans, players and management all love those moments. And who besides the most cynical of us wouldn’t?

When you get a taste of winning, you want more. The greed kicks in. Trophies, any trophy, become collectibles that define players’ careers and the franchise’s level of success.

For years, it was disheartening to see TFC treat the Canadian Championship as a nuisance on the schedule. A time to play the B team while the stars rested for the weekend fixtures. Well, one look at Greg Vanney’s lineups this year suggests that school of thought is no longer permeating the offices at BMO Field or the Kia Training Grounds. From the top down, this team is treating the Voyageurs Cup as a trophy that rightfully belongs to them, and that is refreshing.

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

For many fans, while the domestic league will always be top of the list, there is also a desire to see how their favourite team ranks against the best clubs from around the world. TFC’s route to the Club World Cup is to first qualify and then win the CONCACAF Champions League. Who doesn't want to see our best XI face off against the best from Liga MX? Think of it as an extended ending to the video game; if you have beaten all the side quests, you get to play the bonus levels.

If all continues to go well, Toronto will are on their way to taking a run at the Supporters’ Shield, the MLS Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League and - hopefully, eventually - the Club World Cup.

A friend once described playing Zelda to me like this: “Sometimes you end up on so many side quests, it’s hard to remember what the original main quest was.” One can only hope that with shots at trophies becoming much more frequent over the next few years, that it won’t matter what is labelled what; only that Toronto FC, much like Link, will prevail as heroes in everything they undertake.