In the life of a club there will be many eras.
Through the early years of Toronto FC, whether under the tenures of Mo Johnston, John Carver, Preki, Aron Winter, Paul Mariner, or Ryan Nelsen, there were great moments, as this period of reflection has recalled, but it would be difficult to call any period ‘successful’.
The same is not true of the current era under Greg Vanney, one that began towards the end of the 2014 season when the then-Academy Director replaced Nelson at the helm of the first team.
This week’s Match of the Week goes back to September 27, 2014 at BMO Field when the Portland Timbers came to town and a first-ever playoff berth was a possibility.
While Toronto would have to wait until the following season to achieve that milestone, the foundational elements were on display that day.
It did not start well.
“It was a strange start for sure,” recalled Nick Hagglund on Thursday’s Footy Talks Live.
Seconds in play was halted as Mark Bloom and Will Johnson, who, a few years later, would later exhibit the same sacrifice for Toronto in the Canadian Championships, clattered into a challenge that saw Johnson leave the field with a broken leg.
Thirteen minutes in Portland took the lead and three minutes after that a bizarre own-goal off the inner leg of Steven Caldwell would see it doubled.
Hagglund called it “one of the strangest own-goals that I've ever seen.”
With six games left, Toronto would have to win out to stand a chance of playing in the post-season. Building off an emphatic win over Chivas USA, they had hoped for a better start.
“Honestly, we were so poor in the first half,” said Hagglund. “I was thinking to myself, ‘how can it go this wrong?’”
“It was a stretch where we had to, basically, win all games to make the playoffs. And so this was the first one, was a big one. We had to start this one off right and we go down 2-0,” he continued. “At half, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, how can this happen?’ The pressure was mounting... ‘Oh man, this is a terrible feeling.’”
If ever there was a time for one of the proverbial tales of two halves this was it.
And so it was.
“We just had to go for it,” the defender, who netted twice that day, remembered. “We had to win, so we're just going to go for it as much as possible. Portland dropped off a little bit and let us play. Ultimately we beat them on set pieces, had most of the control in the second half, they stepped off of us, and a couple of goals, a goal from Michael [Bradley], and that’s all she wrote.”
Though neither is his most famous header in Toronto, that would come in 2016 against the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference Final, Hagglund fondly remembers those moment from his rookie season.
“I knew I could float back-post like that and find the space. Once I knew it was just [Darlington] Nagbe up against me,” he explained. “Second goal: sneaks back-post to me, I'm just sitting there, and it kind of hits me in my face it goes in.”
Though the playoff hopes would be dashed, there was something evident that day that would be a trademark of the side under Vanney in the coming year. There was a determination, a refusal to be beaten, a team spirit that permeated, something that propelled the side, against the odds, to find a way.
Time moves swiftly in the sporting world, rosters change, familiar faces depart and new ones arrive. But seven years removed from that result against Portland, there remain some holdovers.
Bradley, the captain; Justin Morrow; Jonathan Osorio. Hagglund himself and Ashtone Morgan may have moved on, but not until glory days would come.
Now with his hometown club, FC Cincinnati, after five seasons with the Reds, Hagglund carries that which he discovered as he began his career.
“What I learned from my time in Toronto is the [importance of] chemistry and the people there,” he began. “Not getting rid of people and then bringing new people in, trying to keep a solidified group so that a culture can be brought up.”
“Ultimately, as the years go on, the group gets bigger and bigger, they have the same mindset, the same mentality, the same culture, and that eventually will grow into something. It's about finding the guys that are going to hop onto that core mentality and move forward on to the next year,” Hagglund continued. “The bigger that group gets.... You see what happened [with Toronto] in 2017: everyone played a lot in that season, everyone was in on it, had the same mentality. And so trying to keep that together in Cincinnati, grab more guys that are going to jump on the bandwagon, being excited, and are going to work hard, do the dirty work, but also buy into what we're trying to do is key.”