This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
After defeating Philadelphia 3-1 for its first playoff win in franchise history, Toronto FC is looking to further work its way into the hearts of a passionate Toronto fan base that has experienced arguably the most thrilling year in the city's pro sports history.
It's a team that's been consistently supported only by die-hards who have latched on to TFC as a source of pride, and made BMO Field a place where a small yet unquestionably passionate group of fans can bond over their love of a sport that most of this country (unlike the rest of the world) has abandoned. Despite the strong backing TFC has enjoyed in Toronto, the team without question trails the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Raptors in the city's pro-sports pecking order. But Toronto FC is certainly trending in the right direction.
After travelling a long and tumultuous road to respectability that has seen more valleys than peaks—including several regime changes and a CFL football team moving into its beloved stadium—the team is driving its way into the mainstream of Toronto's sporting identity with its loyal and now growing fan base riding shotgun. Last year certainly helped, as the Reds advanced to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history on the back of MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. But the postseason hype was short lived, as Toronto was embarrassed in an opening-round matchup, while the Blue Jays had just fell short of the World Series in an unforgettable playoff run, and the Leafs were well on their way to tanking for Auston Matthews.
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Toronto FC drew significant fan support since debuting in the MLS in 2007, but several seasons as the perennial doormat of the league—which included nine straight seasons without a playoff appearance—made it impossible for this new team to even approach the level of the city's Big 3 sports teams. But the Reds kept attracting fans and eventually things started to change.
Greg Vanney was hired in 2014 to replace Ryan Nelsen as head coach. And then, after several big-money international signings—most notably Jermain Defoe—failed to flourish in Toronto, the club made its most important moves to date. Defoe was shipped back to England, where his head and heart always were, and Jozy Altidore made the flight over to join Toronto.
Three days after the trade and not influenced by the failures of past international signings, TFC opened up the bank and signed Giovinco out of Italy, making him the highest-paid player in the league.
Since then, Giovinco has been nothing short of sensational while donning the red and white, capturing MLS' golden boot in 2015 while leading the league with 22 goals and TFC to its first playoff berth in franchise history. In a city packing high-profile names on the Blue Jays like 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, in addition to NBA all-star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Giovinco's superstar play matches up with any of them. The notoriety might not be there yet, but there's a strong argument to be made that he's been the best athlete in Toronto over the last two years.
Giovinco was at it again this season, ranking third in the league with 17 goals to power the Reds to 14 wins and a third-place finish, helping them secure the club's first-ever home playoff game. And, of course, he stepped up in front of the home crowd Wednesday night, as both Giovinco and Altidore scored in TFC's 3-1 win, setting up a conference semifinal showdown with New York City FC.
What makes TFC's strong play even more special is the year it chose to make it all happen, a year that has arguably been the best overall in the history of professional sports in Toronto. Over the last 12 months, the city has witnessed back-to-back ALCS appearances by the Blue Jays in two incredible playoff runs, the Raptors turn in their best season in franchise history (falling two wins shy of the NBA Finals), and the Leafs' tank-to-get-better approach work to perfection, as they landed the the first overall pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. That turned out to be none other than Auston Matthews, the Leafs' saviour who is as perfect an example as you'll find for why teams tank.
TFC and the Raptors have never been better. The Blue Jays haven't been this good or popular since winning consecutive World Series titles—that was over 20 years ago. And the Leafs finally look competent again, with smart hockey minds in management to go along with a collection of some of the brightest young players in the game.
For Toronto sports fans, this is quite the time to be alive.