It was fitting how Toronto FC qualified for their first-ever playoff berth.
There was a frosty air coming off Lake Ontario two weeks ago, as there often is late in the season. An astounding late run and potential goal of the year from Sebastian Giovinco solidified the win for TFC, something he had done many times before. The ever-loyal south end at BMO Field roared in exhausted approval.
READ MORE: Toronto, MLS Need to Recognize How Special Sebastian Giovinco Truly Is
If you were playing TFC Bingo, you'd have stamped nearly all the boxes but finally had the chance to check off that elusive final one: Toronto FC, in the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, snapping the longest postseason drought in MLS.
Perhaps most fitting was what surrounded the game, which started just hours after the Toronto Blue Jays celebrated their most important victory of the last 22 years. Toronto FC had won the biggest match in franchise history but would play second fiddle to the Jays, just as they had to the city's other sports franchises previously. Try as they might, the team has yet to eclipse others in the city in terms of popularity.
With a performance like Thursday night's horrid 3-0 loss to the Montreal Impact in the club's much-anticipated first-ever playoff game, you have to wonder if it ever will. In the end, Toronto's exit from the playoffs was just as fitting as its entrance. On the day Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment named a successor to Tim Leiweke, the man who boasted time and time again about TFC's strengths, the team appeared to have no direction on the pitch whatsoever.
The turnaround of this franchise began in January, just days after it washed its hands of Jermain Defoe. The team's marquee offseason signing came in the way of the quick and gifted Sebastian Giovinco. He didn't attract a fraction of the attention that Defoe did, despite being MLS's highest-paid player at the time. It was not unlike TFC to shoot for the moon and put the hopes of the team on one player, and many fans were skeptical.
Their skepticism about the team's lacklustre backend was not without merit. For all the lavish signings up front, the team's weaknesses became insurmountable. There were many who swept TFC's poor defending under the rug this season. But all of TFC's faults were glaring in the biggest game in team history.
Watching this team's clumsy backend literally slip, fall and cough up the ball to Ignacio Piatti for the second goal in Montreal was painful. As if you could see the embarrassing new kid with his flashy new clothes slip and fall with his cafeteria tray on the first day of school. The third, still before halftime, was even uglier. The team's porous defence allowed Didier Drogba—perhaps the most dangerous attacker in the league—to go unmarked in what was an indictment of the entire season.
It was déjà vu all over again for TFC: ugly defending, poor coaching, and a sense of hope that quickly turned to exasperation. With the Leafs setting up cable and hydro in the NHL's basement, the Jays now eliminated from the postseason and the Raptors kicking off a season that could go either way, Toronto FC had an opportunity to become the toast of the town and prove not only that they belong in the MLS Playoffs, but deserve to be taken seriously.
It was a chance to right the wrongs of the past nine seasons, and last week's blunder. In Toronto's final regular season game, it surrendered a lead and the Impact took advantage of continued poor defending and snatched playoff home-field advantage out from under the visitors.
Yes, they looked like the same old TFC. Still, at times, something felt different this season.
Perhaps in part because Giovinco didn't have total command of the language, or perhaps Toronto FC's plan all along was to ditch the hype machine, the "Bloody Big Deal" that quickly became the Bloody Big (insert expletive here), and stick to getting results on the pitch.
A season-opening 3-1 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps looked promising, but a four-game losing streak afterward was anything but. Toronto rebounded to go 5-1-1 after that skid and won four in a row through September and October that culminated with a playoff-clinching win. That four-game winning streak was the longest in team history.
There was also that Saturday afternoon in late July when TFC put a stamp on the season. Down 3-0 on the road to a strong Columbus Crew team, Toronto FC battled back and tied things up with a late Jozy Altidore penalty kick. For the first time ever, TFC showed resilience.
Yes, resiliency is not a stat that can be quantified. At this point, the stats aren't exactly favourable for TFC. Moving forward, taking a hard look at the underlying stats surrounding the team's poor defending should be a priority instead of touting the big stats, namely Giovinco's goals and assists. Resiliency was the only currency TFC traded in this season, but they ran short in their first playoff game.
They relied heavily on Giovinco throughout the season, and he delivered time and time again. He regularly defied expectations even when faced against multiple defenders.
One can only imagine how many more he would've scored had he been faced off against his own team. OK, that was a joke, but at this point, how can you not laugh?
Looking at Toronto's one playoff game alone would be a shudder-inducing exercise. Plain and simple, the club looked lifeless. Place it in the ongoing narrative of TFC's history and it looks even worse.
It was an ugly end to a promising season for TFC. Resiliency will only get you so far. What we're left with was a squad that was poorly managed, defended atrociously and pinned its lofty hopes to one player. Toronto FC got closer this year, but by the end they still looked miles away from being the team fans want them to be.