TORONTO – 2015 was a different time.
Toronto FC, in their ninth season, had never made the playoffs, had never lifted an MLS Cup. All of the magical moments that have come in the last five years had not yet transpired.
It was a crucial time in the club’s history.
Greg Vanney had taken over the managerial reins towards the end of the previous season. Michael Bradley was in his second year with the club, while soon-to-be familiar faces – Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Marky Delgado, Benoit Cheyrou, and Alex Bono, to name but a few – we just getting started in red.
It was the start of something big.
“I remember Jozy and Seba coming in,” said Justin Morrow of the 2015 season. “In the early stages, trying to figure out what was the way we were going to play, what was the best formation for us. I remember Seba having an incredible year.”
“The biggest thing that year was always trying to balance how we're going to attack versus how we're going to defend. We were constantly struggling to find that balance,” continued Morrow. “We scored so many goals and had so many exciting games, but also gave up a lot of goals, so I remember that struggle a lot.”
Toronto scored 58 goals that year, tied for second most in the league. They also conceded 58, a three-way tie for the most allowed.
Having started the campaign with seven-straight road matches, as the renovations at BMO Field were completed, it was a slow build. There were a pair of Altidore braces, against Vancouver and Orlando, that led to wins during the road trip. A Giovinco free-kick in Philadelphia, the first of many in the years to come, led to another.
Toronto accumulated steady points throughout the year, but heading into the crucial August and September period they struggled, winning just three of nine in that stretch ahead of a run of five-straight at home that would determine their playoff fate.
“It was a season where we were still settling into the best version of us,” recalled Vanney. “We were very good on the attacking side, but our challenge was always we would take one step forward and two steps back conceding too many goals.”
“Having said that we were in a solid position in the standings, a position that gave us a real chance of being in the playoffs,” he continued. “There were some exciting times. You could see the signs that we were building towards something special. We undermined ourselves a little bit by conceding goals at bad times and sometimes too easily, but it was an exciting season because we were playing an exciting brand of soccer, an attacking brand of soccer and we just have to continue to build around that.”
Eriq Zavaleta, another of the off-season additions, called it, “An up and down year.”
“It was the goal to make the playoffs,” he stressed. “It had been weighing over the club: a club that had never done that, never had success. The year prior, they were close and so it was a mission for us.”
Toronto took maximal advantage of that home schedule, scoring three goals each in wins over the Colorado Rapids, the Chicago Fire, and the Philadelphia Union heading into the October 14 match against the New York Red Bulls, setting up the potential of clinching that playoff berth with a few games to spare.
The old ghosts were still haunting. And New York were a strong side: they would top the Eastern Conference that season, winning the Supporters’ Shield as well.
“With the way the season went in 2014 – being close and at the same time not so close, knowing that we were a talented team in 2015 and going through the struggles of giving up goals and not securing points throughout the summer like we should have on a consistent basis, it always felt very much on the edge,” recalled Morrow. “We had a good run of form going into the game, but it was still very tight and being a team that had never qualified for the playoffs before we just didn't have that experience. It was a very tense night.”
The belief was there, it was just a matter of doing.
“We had a good sense that we were going to get into the playoffs. It was going to be a question of when,” explained Vanney. “We needed to be more consistent. We came out of a stretch of not having some good results through early September. We knew we had the quality to get to the playoffs, so it was a matter of a stretch of home games to finish the season and that we were going to have to make the most out of those home games, so we were going to have to build some momentum.”
“Knowing or having a good sense that you're going to get to the playoffs, we couldn't take anything for granted. We hadn't, as a club, done it before, so we knew we still had a lot of work to do, but it doesn't change the excitement of what happens when it does, and the release in some ways. We felt like we had the tools to get it done,” he continued. “We got to the home games and got on a pretty good stretch going into the New York game. [That] game was a challenge, coming at the tail end of an international window. Seba was coming back late, so he was going to be a question mark for whether he was even going to be available for the game.”
“The guys went into the game, we had a good game plan. New York is one of those teams that you know who they are, you have to respect who they are, and if you do that and you set up your plan right and the guys execute then you can give yourself a good chance against them,” he added. “We came into that game knowing that if we could get a good result we were in. So guys were really locked in, they were excited to play and we were building off of a three-game win streak that was important towards the momentum and just the confidence of the group.”
On the heels of an international break, Toronto were without their trio of designated players. Bradley, the captain, was not in the lineup, while Giovinco and Altidore were on the bench.
There was something else in the air that night too.
“It was a changed lineup for us, so you knew it was going to be different than our normal performances. And games against Red Bulls are usually not high scoring anyways, so we knew it was going to be a battle going in,” said Morrow. “Our fans were out in full force.”
“One of the funny things I remember about the night was the crowd going crazy in the middle of the game and no action was taking part on the soccer field, it was because of the Blue Jays,” laughed Morrow.
The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, advancing the club to the ALCS. A famous night for Jose Bautista and his infamous bat flip.
“I remember thinking how ironic it was, they're going so crazy for the Blue Jays and this could be our night that we qualify for the playoffs for the first time,” added Morrow. “It was a good night. That's when you really feel the city come alive. The fans in Toronto love their sports and when the teams are doing well and we're riding that wave, there's no better city to be a professional athlete in.”
For all that, the game was unremarkable through the opening half.
“I don't remember a ton about the game itself. It was one of those days where the games against New York don't always look incredible, you just have to outwork them and be disciplined. We were able to get ourselves on top of the game,” said Vanney. “I remember Seba’s goal, for sure. And I remember the post-game celebration and the emotion, within the crowd, within the team, myself, all of us.”
But before those celebrations could be had, the second half remained to be played: “We had to get a job done,” summed up Zavaleta of the mood in the group that night.
When thoughts turn to what happened that night, Giovinco’s introduction in the 71st minute, coming on for Herculez Gomez after playing the night before for the Italian National Team, flying back and arriving just that morning, is the stuff of legend.
“We were happy for Seba because he was going through a tumultuous time in terms of the national team. I remember him being on the bench, Jozy was on the bench as well, and I was on the bench with them,” said Zavaleta. “Seba... I just couldn't believe that he was even able to be on the bench. He had flown that morning and he was just so nonchalant throughout warm ups, just ‘I hope I can get in this game.’”
“Our mindset was we have a chance to to do something that the club's never done here and we're going to do everything possible to bring it home,” Zavaleta added. “No matter what the circumstances are.”
It was just another incredible moment, in an incredible year, from Giovinco.
“Sebastian’s goal,” reflected Morrow. “As if he didn't have enough highlight reel goals to show how good he was that year he really capped it off with that special moment against the Red Bulls. It was one of the best, if not the best, solo, individual effort in Major League Soccer that I've seen.”
Giovinco would score 22 goals in 32 matches that regular season, adding 16 assists to win the MLS Golden Boot, Newcomer of the Year, and MVP.
“There are a lot of special goals, meaningful goals,” considered Vanney of his time at TFC. “That has to be one of them because you can't accomplish anything if you don't get into the playoffs and that was the first-time ever, in addition to just the individual quality.”
“2015 was a year where Seba, game after game, was scoring goals of just individual quality,” he continued. “I thought at the time that this is not sustainable: this guy scoring world-class goals and that being how we win games. We have to score more team goals; it can't be this guy pulling these incredible goals off because that's not something you can do on a consistent basis, but he managed to find, as good as anyone, that consistency, coming up with these types of goals, free-kicks, that are insane.”
“When I think back to it, he was so committed to being on the field that night,” recalled the coach. “He and I spoke the day before and he [said], ‘I will be there and I will be ready to play.’ I said, ‘Well, call me when you get in.’ He calls me when he arrives: ‘I'm ready to play. I'm ready to get in.’ He was adamant that he was going to get on the field and he was determined to make a difference.”
“And that goal was just determination,” encapsulated Vanney. “He turns, skill but also a little bit of his Mighty Mouse-strength to bump a guy off the ball to maintain it and then he uses his precision as the player that he is to then finish off the rest of the play. It was a goal of determination and skill and it was a metaphor for his mentality going into that game. He was going to make the difference. He believed that and he stepped on the field and he did it.”
His teammates, the crowd, everyone’s jaw-dropped when he wove through the Red Bulls team and picked out the far corner.
“Probably the most memorable goal in terms of individual class I've watched,” said Zavaleta. “It was just a moment of brilliance. For him to be able to come in and juke defenders the way he did coming off a flight and to score an incredibly important goal, but also an incredibly classy goal.”
“We knew he had this ability: you can't bite, you can't guess that he's going to go with his right, you can't guess that he's going to go with his left because he can beat you with both,” he added. “He showed pure class in a way that that very few people in this league have.”
As a special guest on Footy Talks Live on Thursday, Giovinco said, “I demonstrated to everyone how much I love the game.”
“It was a special moment,” he recalled. “A great goal, a beautiful goal, especially because we made the playoffs. Everything started from that moment. From there we won the 2017 MLS Cup.”
It is difficult to recall with the match ending in TFC’s favour and all the ramifications of that victory that Giovinco’s magnificence was Toronto’s second goal of the night. It was Gomez who provided the crucial breakthrough in the 51st minute when Jackson’s ball into the area was misplayed by a defender and the midseason acquisition pounced.
“I don't even remember it,” admitted Vanney. “The goal itself, in the scheme of how everything was going, was obviously important.”
“The game was a stalemate. It was Herc doing what Herc does. In addition to giving you a good shift, he will come up with some scrappy moments, he'll get into good places and he finds some scrappy goals,” Vanney continued. “Going up 1-0, in a season where we were conceding a lot of goals, was big for our group and in terms of confidence, in terms of sticking to the things that we needed to keep doing to get a result.”
Overshadowed is an understatement: it was the most important goal in TFC history that nobody ever talks about.
“It was a tense night. Games against the Red Bulls team are always tense, the game is different: a bit uglier, a bit cagier. But also with the fans and understanding what the game meant to our season, the potential of what it could be,” summarized Zavaleta. “[Herc’s goal] allowed us to have sort of a breath of fresh air. Similar to the goal Jozy scored in the 2017 MLS Cup, where the game is at a stalemate and then just to feel that ‘We’ve got this’ moment.”
“Herc came in to provide some veteran leadership and give us some important minutes. We were happy for him to be able to get that goal as well,” recalled the defender. “The reaction of the crowd was the reaction of the players: we were excited, we didn't quite know what to expect, but it gave us what we all believed: that we could finish it off on that night.”
Years later that epic night will be the Match of the Week, as voted on by the fans.
“I'm looking forward to watching it again, but I remember the relief and the exhale of the entire stadium: we're going to the playoffs, we've taken that step. Now we've gotten that monkey off of our back and we're moving forward as a club. That was a special time,” recalled the Vanney. “I actually think that exhale, that we had done it, was also part of our demise: down the stretch we felt like we had accomplished something, when really what we had to accomplish was still very much in front of us.”
Toronto would lose their final two matches of the season, leading into a woeful showing in the 2015 Eastern Conference Knockout Round against the Montreal Impact, but that is a story for another day.
“We've had many different missions in different years and that was the one where we were finally able to get over the hump,” said Zavaleta. “We closed out that regular season at home, which was beautiful, against a team that we don't have much love for, and to be able to celebrate that moment in the club's history in front of our fans was an important thing in terms of building the culture for years after that.”
In the following years, Toronto would go on to greater things, albeit with the occasional hiccup and misstep, firmly placing the past in the past, opening up the future to possibility.
That night was crucial in making that so.
“We've tried to establish that it doesn't matter what the past was, we have a future,” said Zavaleta. “We're going to build a culture of success, build a culture of winners, and this was an important night in terms of setting that culture.”
“Momentum is a real thing,” he continued. “Momentum can happen over days, it can happen over months, it can happen over years. And over the course of years the club had some negative momentum and some tough breaks. And so with an up and down year, working our way through the kinks of a full MLS season, we wanted to gift our fan base with what they deserve, which was a chance to watch us in the playoffs, a chance to cheer for us in the playoffs, and to see if we could compete for the ultimate trophy. Being able to get over that hump, to create some positive momentum, was hugely important, in terms of building the culture that could sustain in the years forward.”
And that the whole team dug deep on the night to get it done boded well.
“It was a buy in from everyone else,” remarked Morrow. “It showed that it wasn't just about our DPs, even though we were a team that was really pushing the envelope in terms of our roster makeup, we had a very well-rounded roster and showed how everyone bonded together in that moment and really felt the belief that all of us can make a difference.”
It was a game that Vanney has talked about a lot throughout the successes that would follow.
“In order to be a championship team there are stepping stones,” he began. “When you're inheriting a team, you've got to turn over a roster, you’ve got to get new pieces, there's a real process that goes with that. There hace to be steps along the way and those steps have to be significant.”
“We talked about this as a team over the years. We're taking baby steps, baby steps, but at some point we need to take a big step that says, ‘Okay, we're here, we're a contender. We know this, we believe in this and we believe we have a team that can win a championship,’” he stressed. “I don't think this was the moment that said we were a championship team, but I do think this was a moment that reinforced with everybody that we're moving in the right direction, that we have the foundational pieces we need to move towards being a championship team.”
“This was one of those that gave the group a lot of confidence,” he added. “The emotion that we took out of this game, not just us, but also the fans, gives you something to be hungry for as you approach the next season.”
It was a moment that showed what was possible, one that was followed by a reminder to never take anything for granted.
These are the experiences that have formed the club under Vanney’s tenure.
“While that emotion was so positive, the one that came a couple weeks later was so negative,” alloyed Vanney, referring to a first half collapse at Stade Saputo in the playoffs. “Negative emotions are also what have pushed this team forward to become great.”
“The next year, 2016, we went to the finals, but it was the heartbreak that actually drove the team to be fantastic the year after. We had a great sense of accomplishment by getting into the playoffs, but we were quickly kicked in the teeth and that gave us the drive to come out the next season to try to go farther right and to try to be a better version of ourselves,” he recalled. “This is a pivotal game, a pivotal result, and a pivotal moment because if you don't make the playoffs that season you're no better. For sure I wouldn't be here and you’re no better than you were the seasons before. It was a huge moment.”