A franchise once known for failure, Toronto FC is rewriting its reputation in Major League Soccer with a powerful, relentless playoff run.
And with the Montreal Impact the lone obstacle ahead of the MLS Cup final, Toronto is looking to make more history.
Greg Vanney’s team entered the league record book Sunday with a 5-0 shellacking of New York City FC that completed a shocking 7-0 aggregate victory in the Eastern Conference semifinal. The previous heaviest aggregate defeat was the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 5-0 win over Real Salt Lake in 2014.
For Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, Sunday’s performance — Toronto’s first playoff win on the road — was one of the franchise’s finest.
“For sure. Without a doubt,” he said. “This game’s probably our biggest game, the most important game in our history. It goes along with the first ever game, first home playoff game. But this one was huge. … It’s huge, but I think it won’t matter unless we take care of business going forward.”
With 118 league games under his belt, the 24-year-old Osorio is among the longest-serving players on a Toronto roster that was stripped down and reassembled by general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and nurtured by Vanney. Like many, Osorio has risen to the playoff challenge with two goals in three games.
Under Vanney and imposing captain Michael Bradley, Toronto has turned its culture around. The team survived injuries to build momentum going into the business end of the season and has lost just twice in its last 18 games (11-2-5).
‘Winning is as much a habit as losing can be’ - TFC head coach Greg Vanney
“Winning is as much a habit as losing can be,” said Vanney. “We’ve got good continuity and the group is a tight-knit group and they work hard for each other. When you start getting results that match up with the type of work that you’re putting in, then it starts to build some momentum.”
The Toronto coach has waited a long time for another MLS championship run. As a defender with the Los Angeles Galaxy he was on the losing end of three MLS Cups — 1996, 1999 and 2001 with two of the defeats coming in or after extra time.
Taking over from Ryan Nelsen with 10 games left in the 2014 season, Vanney went 2-6-2 before helping the team to franchise-best records in 2015 (15-15-4, 49 points) and 2016 (14-9-11, 53 points). Including the playoffs, he has now been on the sidelines for 34 of the franchise’s 94 career wins.
With savvy personnel help from Bezbatchenko, Vanney has overseen the turnaround of a defence that went from tied for worst in the league in 2015 (with 58 goals conceded) to tied for second-best this season (39 goals).
The drilling on defence was a constant throughout the pre-season, with every player “committed to posting zeros,” according to Vanney.
“Our mindset is that we’ve got to be a good defending team if we’re going to win a championship.”
As a man-manager, the calm coach has shown a steadying hand at the helm by managing to tweak the roster as needed without unsettling the crew. He has also demonstrated a knack for tactics, successfully switching from a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond to a 3-5-2 formation as the season progressed.
It’s the best team money can buy in MLS and the TFC is playing like it. Hamstrung in the past by lapses in concentration, such as conceding right after scoring, Toronto’s focus is burning bright in the playoffs.
That was shown Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
TFC is also showing a killer instinct. Rather than sit on a two-goal lead going into Sunday’s game, it attacked like a pack of dogs and soon was feasting on NYCFC.
The Toronto players celebrated Sebastian Giovinco’s goal six minutes in with panache, knowing they now had their foot on NYCFC’s neck. But the on-field celebration after the final whistle was almost muted, with the understanding there is more work to do. In a some bizarre moment, Giovinco gave his shorts to an Italian fan as he exited the field.
Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, despite the fact their partnership was limited due to injuries this season, have formed a formidable strike force. Both are nightmares for defenders in their own way.
The five-foot-four Giovinco is an Italian magician who is near unstoppable one-on-one and dangerous from anywhere around the goal. The burly Altidore combines an eye for goal with muscle, shrugging off defender Maxime Chanot like he was a child in scoring against NYCFC.
They draw defenders like moths to a light, meaning they can pull defences out of shape and create space for teammates. And as defenders flood towards the new threats, Giovinco and Altidore can find new holes to penetrate.
The imbalance tilts further in Toronto’s favour when it takes a lead, forcing the opposing team to open itself up by attacking. TFC is 16-1-1 this season when it scores first.
“We can be very punishing,” said Vanney.
Not to mention hard to play against. Toronto is an energetic team with a big engine that pressures its opposition into turnovers.
The 3-5-2 also gives the team width with fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour marauding down the wings. Osorio and Armando Cooper are clever attacking midfielders with Bradley, who has been a force on and off the field this season, serving as a destroyer shielding a stingy back three of Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund.
Restored to health, Clint Irwin is unflappable and reliable in goal.
Veterans midfielders Will Johnson and Benoit Cheyrou wait in the wings along with the versatile Marky Delgado. Tosaint Ricketts offers offence from the bench.
The recent success has also rekindled Toronto’s affection for its soccer team with Sunday’s travelling contingent of supporters in full voice. “The best fans in MLS,” said Vanney.
“It’s one of the things that we set forth through our pre-season — to bring joy to our fans in Toronto, to try to be remembered as a group who kind of really turned things around and was able to bring the sport back to the forefront in Toronto. We’re taking those steps but we still have some work we want to get done.”
The timing of the Eastern Conference final is awkward, with an international break and the Grey Cup in Toronto making for some odd dates.
The series opens Nov. 22 at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium with the return leg Nov. 30 at BMO Field.