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Before the Dawn: Toronto FC must take solace in remarkable CCL run

We’ve known heartbreak before, friends. Persevere.

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Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Guadalajara Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The night is darkest before the dawn. Nobody knows that better than a modern Toronto FC supporter.

After last night’s soul-crushing loss to Chivas on penalties in the CONCACAF Champions League final, our spirits are low. If you’re a Leafs fan as well, like I am, they’re even lower. But this isn’t the first time we’ve felt like this, is it? We’ve all felt this before — unbridled joy in the early rounds of a tournament, followed by naive hope, followed by sheer hatred for the penalty shootout.

After suffering through a three-hour exam this morning, I feel compelled to shine a light on TFC’s incredible CCL run. Too often do we judge things — or people — by the most recent impression they leave us with, rather than their body of work as a whole.

Whether your personal scapegoat today is Michael Bradley, or Marky Delgado, or Jonathan Osorio, we’ve all latched on to moments that we wish had gone differently. If only Alex Bono had gotten an inch more of his hand on that first penalty. If only Marky had finished that 90th minute sitter — how different the story would be if a Chivas USA homegrown had won Toronto the Champions League.

It’s crucial that we remember this tournament for the remarkable story it was, not the heartache it left us with. What other MLS team has ever come so close? Who other than Toronto FC can say they eliminated arguably the most talented team on the continent, in Tigres? And who can say they entered the inferno of the Estadio Azteca, and knocked Club América off their perch?

Understand that this club lost the home leg of a final, then silenced a Chivas army 49,000-strong by battling back from the brink of collapse, finally getting that win in Mexico they’ve wanted so badly. The way TFC responded after Chivas scored first last night was, in itself, an incredible display of character.

That game was a fantastic display of resilience. TFC didn’t quite dominate; Chivas had the upper hand in possession, shots, and passing accuracy. Still, the Reds did not surrender until that final spot kick.

Michael Bradley may have missed his penalty, but think about what he did in that game, and in the tournament before. When the club had no healthy centre-backs, he stepped up to play a completely new position in a Champions League final. Leadership, no? He did a great job of it, too:

That’s two tackles, two blocks, three interceptions, two clearances, and an incredible 12 recoveries. Bradley weathered the storm Chivas sent his way, and then some. That took character, I’d say. No, he’s not a finesse player who can pick out a corner of the goal from 12 yards out. But he is an extremely resilient, capable captain.

Joshua Kloke’s post-mortem of the game in The Athletic is a wonderful read, if you’re subscribed. Reading that is definitely a better use of your time than this. In it, Bradley voices the whole team’s sentiment:

“In the biggest moments, we fuckin’ went for it,” he told The Athletic. “And that’s all you can ask for.”

Liga MX has retained the trophy it feels so entitled to, but TFC did not go quietly. It took a hell of a lot to silence this pesky Canadian team. They caused more than a couple existential crises among the fans and media down in Mexico.

How the hell did this scrappy little soccer club, not even old enough to watch a PG-13 movie, get this far? To go all the way after winning the MLS Cup and setting a points record is one thing, but to do it while being absolutely decimated by injuries? Quite another.

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Guadalajara Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The list of players who missed some time in the CCL due to injury is unbelievable: Nick Hagglund, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow, Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Victor Vazquez, Gregory van der Wiel, Jozy Altidore... there may even be more I’m forgetting.

Sure, the narrative around TFC’s success has focused on the truckloads of money spent on superstar talents. And yes, this run required a few moments of absolute brilliance from players like Sebastian Giovinco. But can you really say they got this far simply because they bought a good team?

Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Osorio are by no means big-money international signings. Victor Vazquez missed most of the tournament, as did Chris Mavinga. One of TFC’s marquee TAM signings, Ager Aketxe, sat on the bench through almost the entire thing.

A little bit of magic certainly goes a long way in knockout tournaments, and we saw enough of that from Seba and Altidore. But we also saw it from Morgan and Osorio. I mean, Morgan hadn’t started a home game for TFC since 2015. A year ago, Oso was the player who bottled three great shots in the home opener against Sporting Kansas City.

If you’d told me in April 2017 that Morgan would start the 2018 CCL final, and Osorio would win the tournament’s golden boot, I would’ve asked how recently you got back from Colorado.

How fitting is it that TFC, who entered this tournament as the unequivocal conquerors of Canada — not MLS — needed major CanCon contributions to get to its final? And how fitting that this club, now five years and eleven months removed from being “The Worst Team in the World,” wrote its latest historic chapter with the help of a left-back who’s been here from the very beginning?

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Guadalajara Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC fans have known pain. It’s been a little rarer in the past couple years, but I hope nobody’s forgotten where we came from. Current success is made sweeter by remembering the bad times — the Defoe catastrophe, the Meadowlands Massacre, the first playoff game, and so, so many years of finishing in the cellar. Would December 9, 2017 have been quite as delicious had it not been preceded by December 10, 2016?

People are worried about TFC’s current place in the MLS table. Please, though: the wasted league games are not made meaningless by losing the CCL. Although they fell short, they had to do everything in their power to give themselves a chance.

I don’t think this hole is impossible to climb out of. The Reds should return their focus to MLS with a vengeance; they have lofty goals, nothing there has changed. The Canadian Championship is coming up too, and TFC absolutely plan on returning to this stage next year. Take heart, everyone: Toronto FC will be back.

Remember how they responded the last time they lost a final on penalties? This is not the team to leave business unfinished.

We can unpack the meaning behind all this as the initial pain fades away. We can debate whether Sebastian Giovinco is among the best players in CONCACAF after his Golden Ball performance. We can discuss the gap between MLS and Liga MX — or perhaps the gap between Toronto FC and Liga MX — and whether it’s closing.

All that can wait, though.

Lover of metaphor that I am, I leave you with a poem — as I’ve done on several occasions throughout this year’s CCL. It’s about heartbreak, and finding hope when things are bleakest. That’s what I’m imploring you to do now; appreciate what we’ve seen, and don’t lose faith.

Bring on the Chicago Fire.

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight gray;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the gray twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
— W.B. Yeats, 1899