TORONTO—There’s no tougher way to lose a final than sudden-death penalty kicks after a dominating performance in which the opponent didn’t get a shot on target.
Toronto FC has been used to swallowing bitter pills for nine years, and Saturday night’s MLS Cup loss to the Seattle Sounders at their home BMO Field will sting for a while.
But this loss—unlike in prior years—doesn’t raise doubts, and actually validates the club’s progress and place in the city’s and country’s sporting landscape.
Sounders’ goalie Stefan Frei, who played for TFC from 2009–2013, came up with a one of the best saves anybody will ever see—let alone the circumstances under which he pulled it off. It was in the 108th minute and Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore directed a header toward the top right corner, but Frei leaped and made a fingertip save.
“Sometimes as a goalkeeper, you feel like you’re not going to get to the ball, but you never know until you try. I try to keep my feet moving and give it my best shot. Luckily I was able to get there,” Frei said.
“At the end of the day you need to pull off something special,” Altidore said about Frei’s save. Cups often come down to a key play or two. None were bigger than Frei’s save.
Frei showed how valuable goalkeeping wins games. His save was as good as scoring the goal of the year to win a final. Not surprisingly, the Swiss keeper was named MLS Cup MVP.
Do What It Takes
A record BMO Field crowd of 36,045—the largest for an MLS final played in a stadium built for soccer—but for about 1,500 Seattle fans, was squarely behind the team in red.
The Sounders game plan was to stifle TFC’s formidable attacking threat any way possible. It was physical and not one for the faint of heart in a game that started at 28F (-2C) weather and got colder as the night wore on.
Teams that feel outgunned resort to “parking the bus” and physical play to neutralize the attacking threat of the opponent. It’s a scenario that has repeated itself countless times in elimination games. Seattle worked it to perfection. The Sounders had three attempts at the TFC goal, but none resulted in Clint Irwin actually having to make a save.
To win a final the way Seattle did does happen from time to time. Soccer eventually needs to award a winner and the penalty shootout has been dreaded at every instance. It’s a toss-up to determine which team’s nine-month season is rewarded with a trophy.
“I thought they dominated us to be honest and for us to stick to our game plan and obviously fight through everything, it’s just a characteristic of our team that we have,” said Sounders midfielder Christian Roldan.
Soccer is a team game and penalty kicks are one-on-one. It’s a different construct altogether after 120 minutes of soccer. TFC captain Michael Bradley, after a fantastic display through 120 minutes, had his penalty kick saved by Frei. Justin Morrow’s kick hit the crossbar before Roman Torres scored the winner 5–4.
“Michael’s been brilliant every single moment of the season. For him to not convert doesn’t take away from any of that,” Irwin said about Bradley’s penalty kick.
TFC head coach Greg Vanney said he’d eventually break down at some point, but that he was simply numb at the end of the game.
“I was disappointed with penalty kicks, such a hard-fought season, and this game in particular, for it to end in penalty kicks, it is just not the way you want to finish a game like that,” Vanney said.
All of TFC’s in-game dominance, the hard work to just get to the final, and being left with basically a coin-flip—a numbing sensation indeed.
“Not every game, the team that deserves to win the game wins the game, and tonight we feel like that’s what happened,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta.
The Reds learned how cruel the sport can be. A game can come down to one play—Frei’s save—and that trumps every aspect of domination a team can hold.
Ever the class act, Bradley spoke to reporters at length after the defeat—also answering questions in Italian.
He’s bitterly disappointed about the result, but put it all in perspective given how lucky he and his teammates are.
“To play for this club, to play in this city, to represent this city,” he said. “In my case to have an amazing wife, two happy, healthy kids.
“They help me more than they probably even realize in moments like this.”
Toronto FC’s run shone bright lights on the team and the sport of soccer in Toronto—given competition from hockey, basketball, and baseball.
“We’ve always said as a group if you get to people’s emotions and you make them feel good, which is usually what we’ve done, then they’ll always keep coming back and they’ll get behind you,” Vanney said. MLS Cup was an emotional rollercoaster of a match that fans won’t soon forget. Toronto came inches from claiming a first major trophy in a professional North American sports league since 1993 on Saturday.
TFC fans have been through many years of hardship and could legitimately have given up hope, but reaching the final and showing how close success can be gives folks hope that the club will clear that last hurdle.
“The effect we had on the city, it was palpable. People have taken notice about this team, and the feelings we’re able to give them and the feelings they’re able to give us,” Irwin said.
Zavaleta and Irwin both pointed to TFC winning the Canadian Championship as one of the team’s goals this year. It is not to be forgotten amid the Reds’ historic playoff run.
After all is said and done, the loss takes nothing away from TFC’s accomplishment. They reached the final after overcoming their bitter rival from Montreal in what was one of the best playoff series in MLS history.
In the final, the Reds did everything, but put the ball in the back of the net. They were the better team and deserved a better fate—but that’s soccer in a Cup final. It’s happened before and will happen again.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio summed it up: “This is team that is capable to win a championship game. It just wasn’t our time.”
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports