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Reflections from a Long-Suffering Toronto FC Fan

No longer the pitiable underdogs, TFC is on the verge of being a legitimate heavyweight in MLS. But the clanged-crossbar shot and finals loss are tough pills to swallow.
Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

A bit of personal disclosure, before launching into my What It All Means dissertation about the championship-that-nearly-was for Toronto FC: I'm in moping right now.

Everyone reacts to sporting heartbreak in different ways. Some are able to immediately move on, some turn to intellectual confectionery to salve the wound (kitten videos!!), and some—like yours truly—must dive as deep as possible into the pit of despair before granting themselves absolution.


So the one image I've been mentally force-feeding myself since the end of Saturday night's MLS Cup final is Justin Morrow's penalty kick clanging off the crossbar.

READ MORE: MLS Playoffs Have Been Vindicating for TFC's Jozy Altidore

I watched it unfold live, from about 100 feet away, in the southend stands at BMO Field. I'd spent 10 years faithfully supporting the team (from near and far) and 120 minutes donating the contents of my lungs to the sub-zero ether on the shores of Lake Ontario. But at that moment, I had nothing left to give. Collapsed into my seat, head buried in my numbed hands, I was only alerted to the game's conclusion a few moments later by the distant roar of the Sounders fans in the stadium's northeast corner.

A lasting image of the 2016 season. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Many of the 36,000-plus fans that had crammed into the stadium filed out instantaneously. Some remained on their feet, chanting and cheering to let the players know their playoff run hadn't been in vain.

Slumped in that red plastic seat—in a puddle of streamers, confetti and half-frozen Mill Street Organic—all I could do was stare blankly, my optic nerves registering the rave-green figures parading around the field with a trophy but not fully passing the message along to my brain.

The stadium, and the city, had been so ready for a rapturous explosion, for the recent near-misses of the Blue Jays and Raptors to culminate in a conclusive and cathartic championship win. Waves of balaclava-clad police officers formed multiple perimeters around BMO Field on Saturday, anticipating all hell breaking loose.


Like it did before the game when fans were gearing up for big match. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, the fans who'd been so super-charged a week earlier by the unbelievable, all-time classic victory over the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference Championship slinked off into the night, bundling silently onto the GO Train or ambling into their preferred Liberty Village watering hole for some emotional eating and communal commiserating.

Ahead of that ecstasy-inducing Montreal semifinal showdown on Nov. 30, it wasn't uncommon to hear supporters confess to being more nervous than they were on their own wedding days (*puts hand up, sheepishly*).

But the long and winding buildup to Saturday's ultimately agonizing MLS Cup final brought a certain kind of surreal serenity. For a time, it felt like just another day out with pals… at least until someone committed the faux pas of mentioning the impending cup final that TFC was somehow in.

Despite living on the other side of the country, I was able to be part of the long-awaited day, thanks in no small part to the much-appreciated help of friends within the Toronto soccer community, many of whom I had the good fortune to spend some time with as the hours and minutes ticked down to the big game.

And as the clock moved inexorably forward, the gravity of the situation began dawning on us. A team that had come to be defined by its own false promises and incompetence was within one game—one goal, perhaps—of being crowned champions; a fan base that had come to be defined by its stubborn, fanatical loyalty was within 90 minutes of finally earning their reward.


But of course, the stars weren't as flawlessly aligned as we'd allowed ourselves to believe. Despite finally fielding a championship-caliber team after a decade-long revolving door of interchangeable and forgettable cogs, TFC could not fully exorcise the demons of the bad old days.

The "Toronto player comes back to bite Toronto team in the ass"—a phenomenon that permeates all the city's pro sports teams—once again reared its head at the most inopportune time. Of course—of course—it ended up being long-time TFC 'keeper Stefan Frei who saved the day for Seattle. (Ah well. Good for him, really.)

TFC's remarkable resiliency in 2016 allowed its supporters to build sturdy mental dams, keeping at bay the previous years' worth of accumulated fatalism about the team's fortunes. But when Frei somehow got his fingertips to a late-game effort by Jozy Altidore, the dams finally burst.

This wasn't going to be our day after all, was it?

Be that as it may, we've now firmly entered a new era for this team. No longer the pitiable underdogs, TFC is on the verge of being a legitimate heavyweight in MLS. It remains to be seen how much of the team's core can be kept together next season, but this year could very well have been a harbinger of a future dynasty.

For years, it's sounded like either self-delusion or self-mockery when fans at BMO Field chanted, "we'll never stop 'til we've won the cup." But now, winning it isn't a fanciful pipe dream for Toronto FC, it is a concrete ambition.

I'll keep reminding myself of that as the clanged-crossbar autoplay in my mind slowly fades away. And before long, I'll be dreaming of the next time I get to share an evening with my friends at our house on Lakeshore.