TORONTO – While in recent years success has been plentiful for Toronto FC, that hasn’t always been the case.
The jubilation of the first few seasons, the memories of the Seat Cushion Game where Danny Dichio scored the first-ever TFC goal wore off eventually and the first-ever MLS Cup Playoff appearance in 2015 was still a dream.
But even in those dark days, there were moments that sit lightly in the hearts of TFC fans.
Voyageurs Cup wins yes, some Concacaf Champions League success, but really it was individual moments that shine the brightest amidst those stormy times.
One such moment came midway through the 2012 season and will be Friday’s TFC Classic Match of the Week.
Sometimes the narratives woven around the game land heavy: in the middle of this one was Terry Dunfield.
A native of Vancouver, Dunfield moved to England to pursue his soccer dream, coming up at famed academy of Manchester City only for a devastating knee injury to nearly end it after a move to Bury FC.
That would not stop him.
He underwent surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation before returning to the pitch. Spells with Macclesfield Town and Shrewsbury Town would follow, but with Vancouver Whitecaps FC prepared to enter MLS, he was lured by the call of home.
He joined Vancouver in 2010, ahead of their inaugural MLS season the following year.
But if soccer teaches anything it is that nothing is certain. Midway through that campaign, Dunfield, a hometown boy done good, left abruptly.
The precipitating factor was a 1-0 loss away to the Columbus Crew on July 6.
“We'd just had a new manager come in, Tommy Soehn, he lost his first couple of games,” recalled Dunfield. “For the first time, I was left out of the team. I come off the bench against Columbus. We win a penalty, the game is nil-nil. Camilo is our leading goalscorer, but almost to prove a point to the manager I grabbed the ball – I was the captain of the team, Jay DeMerit was injured.”
“I remember putting it down, looking around at like 25 000 fans and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I just done.’ And then my next thought was, ‘My dad is watching this all play out. He’s in the stands, what is he thinking?’ And then I said to myself, ‘Whatever you do, don't change your mind: you're going to go to the right.’ And then I went to my left, the keeper saved it, they went down the other end and scored. That was the starting point.”
Some further memorable names for TFC Fans were involved that day – Will Hesmer saved the effort and Jeff Cunningham scored the game-winner for the Crew.
A few days later, following a bad loss to the Colorado Rapids, the situation came to a head. Dunfield was managing a groin strain/hernia, but Soehn wanted every player to undergo a beep test.
“One of the biggest regrets of my career – I missed so much time through injury – was playing hurt,” explained Dunfield. “Finally I put my hand up and say I can’t do it. He thought it was something personal. It wasn't. And the next day I was traded to Toronto.”
“The frustrating part is, I had just, after 13 years of being in England, come home and it’d been amazing for a year-plus, almost 18 months in Vancouver, playing for my hometown team.”
Dunfield joined TFC on July 14 2011.
But as with any dark moment, there are silver linings.
“I remember Tommy sitting me down and saying we accepted a trade and my first thought was, ‘Please don't be Texas, or Columbus,’” joked Dunfield. “And he says, ‘You're going to Toronto,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah?! This is great.”
“’I'm going to leave the turf, which is tough on my knee. I'm going to play on grass. It's the [Canadian] National Team home stadium,’” he continued. “And there was always something special. Everybody around the league knew that Toronto FC was bubbling and when the right ingredients were put together this club was going to take off.”
Fast-forward nearly a year, to July 11 2012, and Dunfield finds himself lining up against his former side at BMO Field.
“On and off the field, I'm very passionate, but as soon as the trade went through, it was on to Toronto and I never really looked back. There was no regret,” Dunfield said of heading into the match. “It’s funny how the game works out. At the time we were going through a tough patch in the league, the three points were more important than my agenda. I remember having that mindset, but there's always something special when you play against one of your former clubs.”
Vancouver took the lead, Toronto responded with two, only for the Whitecaps to level in stoppage-time, setting the stage for Dunfield and the moment.
He discussed the goal itself on a recent edition of Footy Talks Live, explaining that his intent was to make a pick to free up Danny Koevermans as the danger man, but the football gods had other plans.
“I was trying to set up an action for Koevermans, the ball kind of came, landed on my head, and it took me a second to realize this is going in,” he continued. “I remember seeing my mate, Joe Cannon in net. We made eye contact, he smirked, [it said] ‘This is all right. This was fate.’”
It was his first goal for TFC, a game-winner against his former club, and he celebrated accordingly.
“And then it's off to the races,” laughed the midfielder. “Thought about taking my shirt off, about going into the crowd, saw the coaching staff go nuts. And when you’re living in the pit, you're going through so much adversity and it's tough times, and then you're thrown a bone, it was just an explosion of emotion.”
He needed some time to come down afterwards.
“Danny and I must have spent two hours after the game,” recalled Dunfield. “I talked his ear off in the hot and cold tub. I didn’t want to leave, that’s when it actually settled in.”
It was a bright moment in the middle of a tough season.
2012 will always be remembered for a throw-away line after a 3-1 loss to D.C. United: “Worst team in the world.”
It was the ninth loss to open the campaign, a still-league record for the most to start a season. That eventually resulted in Aron Winter’s departure, replaced by Paul Mariner in June, but not until after Koevermans scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union to break that curse.
It was a strange year, bookended by Concacaf Champions League appearances, as in the old format the competition was split over two calendar years.
Toronto began in high spirits, beating the LA Galaxy of David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane in the quarterfinals and going toe-to-toe, for 90 minutes at least, against Santos Laguna in the semifinals of the 2011-12 Champions League.
TFC held the Mexican side to a 1-1 draw in the first leg – Miguel Aceval scored for Toronto, but Herculez Gomez responded after half-time, setting up the potential for a dramatic second leg.
“A little bit like the LA Galaxy at the SkyDome. We knew we were up against it in the home leg, our chits were all in,” said Dunfield. “Sometimes when you’re really in the pit and you know you’ve got to be at your best because you’re playing one of the biggest clubs, at the time, in the western hemisphere, you need your Spidey sense on, having them come here everybody raises their game. The fans were incredible, we turned it into a street fight and the tie was still alive going into the second leg.”
What happened in the second leg, a 6-2 defeat precipitated by another two from Gomez, is a story for another day.
“The season was defined by trying to juggle the Champions League and MLS with a thin squad,” leveled Dunfield of that year. “I was going to say ‘eclectic team’, but I don’t even know if it was eclectic. We had a little bit of everything. It was a team put together, maybe not with a long term strategy, more a lot of quick fixes, which resulted in a lot of different playing styles.”
Part of that was the constant churn of players and coaches that defined the club in those days, made more emphatic but the drastic shift of styles as the managerial reins transferred from Winter to Mariner.
“The barometer shifted completely to the other side. Under Aron Winter there was a lot of complexity to our game model, and maybe not the pieces the execute it,” summed up Dunfield. “Mariner took over and brought real simplicity: each player in our 4-4-2 system knew exactly what was required. Unfortunately, some of our creative players didn’t fit into it, there wasn’t buy in as well, and you saw.”
One of those was Joao Plata, the pint-sized feel-good story of the previous season, selected with the final pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by Winter, only to win the hearts of Toronto fans with his dynamism, presaging another little ball of energy that would grace the pitch and the hearts at BMO Field soon enough.
Plata earned the George Gross Memorial Trophy with his performance in the 2011 Canadian Championship and it was his brace in a crucial Champions League match away to FC Dallas that October that set up the date with the Galaxy.
By July he was back in Ecuador on loan at LDU Quito before being shipped off to Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2013 season following a clash with Mariner.
They were bittersweet days.
“Players like that, that’s one of the coolest parts of the game: he’s 19, he’s in a new city, there are so many components that need to line up for him to have a solid performance. One of them was time and learning the system,” said Dunfield, now ensconced as a coach in the TFC Academy, “At the time at TFC we weren’t able to provide that for him, didn’t have the time to manage him. I can see why he was traded. It’s cool to see him [doing well]. Am I surprised he’s had all this success? No.”
It was also Torsten Frings’ only full season with TFC and the last of his storied career.
A legend in his native Germany, Frings was out of place in a struggling Toronto side.
“He had a little bit of a guard,” said Dunfield of his former teammate. “I became close with him. When he let that shield down, his stories were incredible. We're talking about World Cup Semifinals, Champions League finals. It was almost surreal, listening to him speak.”
But time comes for all. The legs start to go and Frings’ hopes for a strong 2012 campaign were undone by a hip injury that ultimately led to his retirement ahead of 2013.
“We tried ways to adapt the team around him playing sweeper,” continued Dunfield. “That was an interesting signing: maybe with the right pieces around him and a little bit more clarity, he might have been a little bit more impactful.”
But again, there were moments: in particular, a screamer of a free-kick from Frings in a 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact.
“We still stay in touch now,” added Dunfield. “He was back maybe 12 months ago. It was cool listening to him about coaching his former club, Darmstadt, working with different budgets, and the highs and lows of a first team manager.”
“He loved our culture, loved the Blue Jays, was always at the Blue Jays – I think he bought a season ticket, him and his wife, Petra.”
2012, for all its ups and downs, saw another piece of silverware added to the cabinet with a fourth-straight Voyageurs Cup win over Vancouver, having dispatched Montreal in the semifinals.
Reggie Lambe and Ryan Johnson provided the goals in both series.
“We were cup specialists,” admitted Dunfield. “As a group of players we were nomads almost. Against certain opposition we were good fits. When all the pieces did come together, at times it was a little random, we had some nice attacking pieces.”
The second go-through the Champions League would see another two matches, this time in the group stage, against Santos Laguna. Positive results from both fixtures against Salvadorean side CD Aguila meant Toronto had a chance to advance in the final match, despite losing 3-1 at BMO Field to the Mexican side, but Gomez again provided the dagger after 73 minutes of tense football at Estadio Corona in Torreon.
2013 brought further machinations: Mariner was out, replaced by Ryan Nelsen, and as TFC continued to evolve Dunfield too would leave, moving on to Oldham Athletic and Ross County, before finding his way back to Toronto as a coach, helping develop the next generation of players.
Those are the twists of fate. It is what brought him to Toronto in the first place.
This small portion of TFC history reminds that though much is uncertain, even in the darkest times there will be moments worth holding onto. And though one can never be certain what the future will hold, this too will pass.
It is how one approaches that matters.
“I’m not sure I was the player of the year – Koevermans was, until he got injured,” Dunfield demurred, reminded of such an honour being bestowed upon him after the final home match of the 2012 campaign, a 0-0 draw against Montreal. “I was hungry for the next season to start. It was nice, but big picture I was already focused on 2013 and excited for the changes on the horizon.”