Monday, December 11, 2017

Red Rise

Winning a league title in just 11 years of existence, even in a smaller league like MLS, is still a pretty good achievement on paper.  There are multiple clubs, in fact, that have yet to win the MLS Cup despite being in the league since day one — let’s all give a big LOL to the New England Revolution, FC Dallas, and the New York City Red Bulls.

But for Toronto FC, that 11 years just seemed way longer.  The club packed about 50 years of incompetence and drama into that first eight seasons of non-playoff soccer, with coaching changes and roster shakeups and the losing, the losing, my god, the losing!  It was just over three years ago that TFC went through the ‘bloody big deal’ nonsense with Jermain Defoe and yet another fired head coach in Ryan Nelsen, which once again seemed to put the team back at square one.

This time, however, things were different.  Toronto had one actual proper building block in place (Michael Bradley) and then replaced Defoe’s zero-cares-given and Gilberto’s unspectacular decentness with two Designated Players that proceeded to blow the doors off the league (Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore).  Around these cornerstones, TFC then acquired actual talented secondary players that didn’t require the stars to carry the entire team.  I realize that I’m simplifying the failures of the first eight years but man, this doesn’t have to be rocket science.  Once you achieve basic tasks like, say, hiring a GM and coach who don’t hate each other, or hiring a GM that hasn’t alienated half the coach, or hiring a coach that knows the rules of MLS, it tends to make things a bit easier on yourself.

Even after getting on track, I must admit to be being constantly surprised by TFC’s rise from “hey, they’re finally pretty decent” to “wow, they’re really good” to “wait, is this the best team in MLS history?!”  TFC, when at full strength, was just destroying teams all season long.  Even at less than 100%, they still usually managed to win, which was a key difference from the house-of-cards rosters from years past. 

It all culminated in last Saturday’s MLS Cup final, when Toronto FC pretty much dominated the Seattle Sounders from start to finish, totally erasing their bitter loss to Seattle in last year’s Cup final.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sporting crowd roar as they did when Altidore scored what was eventually the game-winning goal — the pavilion was literally shaking.  It was 11 years of frustration* coming out in one kick of the ball.

* = not to mention another MLS Cup final of frustration, given how Stefan Frei had been absolutely standing on his head to hold TFC scoreless and keep the overmatched Sounders in the game. 

So now Toronto FC has finally become the “sleeping giant” that so many people predicted the franchise would become if it ever got a clue.  Huge financial resources, a rabid fanbase, sold-out crowds, and the all-important winning culture in place…the sky is really the limit now.  It is very difficult to build a dynasty in as parity-driven a league as MLS, yet the Reds are in excellent shape for the coming years.

To be fair, eight straight MLS Cups is probably overcompensating for the eight losing seasons to begin the franchise’s history.  Can’t hurt to try, right?

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