TORONTO – The Trillium Cup has seen better days.
Never the most beloved of silverware, the rusty tin pot is awarded to the in-season winner of the head-to-head matches between Toronto FC and Columbus Crew SC.
When Toronto joined MLS back in 2007, Columbus were their closest rival. Since then, the league has changed, new rivals have evolved, both eternal and those based more strictly on the history that has built up between teams on the pitch. As such the Trillium Cup has become a bit of an afterthought.
That said, one never wants to not win a trophy.
And sometimes it is not the cup itself that matters, but what winning it indicates about a side.
This week’s TFC Match of the Week, was just such a day. Trillium Cup-clinching yes, but so much more than that.
“The team had been on a really good roll. We had just come off like a good run of games, then we then we drew at Red Bull Arena,” recalled Jonathan Osorio of the team’s form heading into that May 26 2017 encounter. “So we had been unbeaten in a long time, we were in a really good rhythm and we're going into this game with Columbus, who are always a good team, and we wanted to prove a point.”
“I remember it was a great night,” he added. “Very, very good weather-wise, a warm night at BMO under the lights, those Friday Night Lights. It was a game to remember for sure.”
On the heels of that magical run to the MLS Cup Final in 2016 and the heartbreak that defeat held, 2017 saw TFC with a clear mission with or without the big guns.
“It was one of those games – we had a couple of those that year – where we realized we just had this flow and confidence about us,” said Alex Bono. “No matter who was on the field, we knew that whoever it was, was ready and able to get us a result.”
Toronto were without both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco that night, but it didn’t matter.
“That shows it to you. Victor [Vazquez] pulled the strings with the two strikers out – he pulled the strings anyway,” the goalkeeper continued. “And you got a guy like Jordan [Hamilton] who is hungry for an opportunity, comes on and scores. Tos [Ricketts] wins a penalty. Those are our second two strikers that year.”
“It’s one of those where, and I think this paid off at Columbus in the playoffs when we played without Jozy and Seba in the first leg, we realized that yeah those [two] are awesome, incredible, and in order for us to win a championship those guys has to be at full force, but in order for us to go and get a result, grind something out we can do it,” Bono highlighted. “We had so much depth that year. That was one of those games that helped us show ourselves that we could do that.
“I remember that game was so much fun. The crowd was super into it. We were on some pretty good run going into that game. It was a beautiful day, the crowd came out in numbers, and we just pummelled them,” he added. “We absolutely walked all over them.”
Among the goals one stood out.
Vazquez did a number of memorable things in the two years he spent with the club, but that night saw two trademark occasions: the free-kick under the wall and the heart-shaped hands celebration.
“It was genius,” said Osorio, who netted a goal himself neatly that day. “A genius play by a genius player to go under the wall. To read the wall, read the goalie, and to read the situation, anticipating the wall jumping, and being a step ahead of them to put it under them, knowing that would make it difficult for the goalie to get... it’s genius. A genius play by a really great player.”
“And the heart-shaped hands are for his family,” he added. “Shows how much he loves his family and he’s not afraid to show it.”
Vazquez had joined TFC in the off-season, advertised as the missing piece, the lock-picker, the one who would take the club to the next level and go one step further than they did the year before.
He already had a goal and eight assists in his first 12 appearances, but that night he dominated the headlines and showed his class.
“Him, Seba, Jozy, no matter what you put in their way, they’re experienced, they're talented, they're going to find a way to get around whatever you're trying to put in front of them,” explained Bono. “Jozy is strong enough that no matter what centre-back you put in there, he going to body him and get a shot off. Seba is going to wiggle through the smallest, tightest spaces.”
“Victor is just going to out do you with so much quality, that he makes look effortless, that you're just going to feel stupid,” he continued. “He puts that ball under the wall, he has probably a couple inches when these guys are jumping up, at the right time, the right pace and the right direction. And he just jogged away and he does his little heart, points up towards his wife and his kid. That's Victor.”
“It's crazy because you almost expected it,” chuckled Bono. “As difficult of a skill as it is, as impressive as it is, you almost expect it from a guy of his quality. You can't take that for granted. I miss seeing that guy on the field; he made your jaw drop every time he touched the ball.”
Vazquez himself, a guest on this week’s Footy Talks Live, admitted that goal was “a special one.”
“I tried many times, it only [worked] one time in Belgium and because I moved to MLS I thought that maybe no one has seen me try this,” he explained. “I wanted to do some something special and it worked out. For me it was the best goal I scored with Toronto.”
Being a product of the FC Barcelona system carries an expectation, but nobody quite knew what TFC were getting when Vazquez was signed.
“We knew that he was coming from Barcelona in their golden era. We knew he had to have some quality in him,” recalled Marky Delgado. “But when he started training with us, you could tell right away that he was a very special player.”
“I admire Andres Iniesta, Xavi, that midfield of Barcelona and it was like I was playing with them. It was so exciting, to learn and pick up what he knew, pick his brain, and just admire the way he played; at the same time, play alongside him,” Delgado continued. “He was so smart off the ball.”
“Everyone is attracted to the ball, [Victor] would find a spot, he would pull away from where everyone was going and find himself in a good position where if the ball were swing back around he was in a position to be effective,” recounted the midfielder. “And on the ball he had the quality to pick the lock of the defense, to score goals. He’s a special player and he helped us in many ways like that. “
“He wasn't good at one thing or two things, he was good at many things. A smart player off the ball, a smart player with the ball, very confident. He helped others around him: Justin Morrow was thriving with him; everyone was comfortable,” he continued. “He made everything easier and he fit right in because you could tell he wanted to play and we all wanted to play. And then we had Jozy and Giovinco up top, when they have their chances they're going to finish.”
There was a joy about the way Vazquez played.
“He loved what he did. He enjoyed every second,” added Delgado. “Looks like a quiet guy, but once you get talking to him, he can really talk your ear off, which is not a bad thing because he’s such a nice guy and everything he has to say about the game is great stuff. You loved the knowledge because his IQ for the game is incredible.”
Osorio, like Delgado, made the most of the opportunity to study their teammate.
“It was a chance to learn from somebody that had played at the highest level. A guy that came from, you can argue, the best football academy in the world in the history of football. A guy that has played in the Champions League games, a guy that went to Belgium and won Player of the Year,” listed Osorio. “This was a very established guy that I could learn from, that I had the privilege to learn from and see how he saw the game, his vision for the game, decision making, the way he was as a person, as well.”
“It was great to have him in the club, not only for me, but for the whole club. He was the missing piece for sure, that goes without saying, and in this game he proved it,” Osorio added. “In the games before he was contributing and doing well, but this game was when he really solidified himself as probably our most important player: scoring the two goals, the free-kick under the wall and then the penalty as well. A great game for him; he was such a pivotal player for us the whole year.”
Morrow’s screamer, the second goal of the night, was overshadowed in the moment, but what a campaign he had that year.
“Like every game he got one,” recalled Bono.
“He was on a roll. His best year scoring-wise, that’s a fact,” leveled Osorio. “I think the formation suited him a lot: the 3-5-2, him being a wing-back and our tactics, where [they] could get very forward. He was very aggressive that year, always in the right place at the right time, making great plays. That was a great goal, a screamer near-post. Well deserved.”
On those nights, where one’s team is crushing the opposition, the goalkeeper has a unique view.
“I tell everybody, every time we do, that these are the best days,” explained Bono. “When you score an early goal, or an early couple of goals, what it does is it takes so much pressure off your defence. There's almost, not a room for error, but there's breathing space. Where if we have a breakdown and they score, we’re still up 3-1 now.”
“Every time you go out you want to keep the zero, but knowing that there's breathing space for us to say, ‘Okay, we're confident, we're flying high, everything's clicking going forward. We're good,’” he continued. “And the other aspect of that is when you're beating up on a team, they’re going to, more often than not, go into their shell. They’re on the road, tough environment, there's a lot of people, and they’re saying let's just pack it in, let's get out of here. It changes the dynamic of the entire game. The best games for goalkeepers are the ones where if you don't have to touch the ball.”
There were more than a few games in 2017 where opposition visiting BMO Field knew their fate before a ball was kicked.
Heading into that match at the end of May, Toronto were looking good, leading the Eastern Conference and building a bit of a cushion. They were confident, but it was still early in the year. A lot can change over the course of a season.
It had not always been so pretty; that match steeled their belief.
“We were getting wins, but we were grinding out wins, winning by one goal here, 1-0, 2-1 wins. We were getting results, but we weren't dominating just yet,” said Osorio. “This was the game that switched everything. We had a little bit of a rotation this game and guys were stepping up, the subs that came in added to it, and we went a man down and actually scored two goals while down a man down. That really gave us a lot of confidence, gave the whole team confidence.”
Every single player would contribute that year.
“At the end of that game we were all pretty confident in one another,” recalled Delgado. “Confident that the person behind us, to each side of us, in front of us, and is going to play a big part in their position and really be productive.”
Said Bono: “There was a mood in the locker room before every game that year: ‘There's just no way we're losing.’”
“And it wasn't an arrogance, but a confidence where everyone was relaxed, no one was uptight or tense. We knew that on any given day, everyone has the same idea: go out, take care of business, do everything together as a group and there's not a team in this league that can walk in here and beat us,” he continued. “That's the way we felt, that's the way we acted when we were around the field.”
“The game earlier in Columbus we were down 1-0 for the whole game and Tos scored two goals late on, after the 80th minute, and we came out of there with three points,” recalled Bono. “People were like, ‘We just stole that game.’ No, we didn't. We were good enough to do that, we can have a down game and still pull it out because we have enough quality, enough ability, enough talent, enough camaraderie as a group that we're going to fight until the end.”
“Those [tough] games help with games when you’re battering a team because those are the fun days, everything is going right for you, everything you do is coming off,” he added. “The games that you grit and grind until the finish, you do that so you have games like when you beat the crap out of Columbus in Toronto.”
In an alternate universe, would TFC have been satisfied if come the end of the year the Trillium Cup was the only piece of silverware in the trophy cabinet?
“No chance,” laughed Delgado. “That thing is falling apart.”
But the boost that winning anything midseason provides is invaluable.
“We had set out that year to step out on the field and just dominate, take over games, win as many competitions, trophies, as we can and that was one of them on the list. We, as a group, feel like if there's silverware on the line, we want it,” stressed Delgado. “That was our mentality that whole year as a group, everyone was hungry to win. Even in training, the level of competition was very high. Everything was just that much more and it showed from the results.”
The foundations were laid in the off-season.
“The sense of what we could accomplish that year, we had that in mind before that, long before. The Trillium cup isn't one of those ones that you post on the wall and do a big team photo with, but it matters,” said Bono. “Anytime you have a chance to get a one up on a team, you can't take that for granted. That's an opportunity for you to say, ‘We were just better than you.’ We played them three times that year, so to be able to say, ‘We played you guys three times, twice at your place, and we were just better than you.’ It's a bragging rights thing and you have that trophy to solidify your bragging rights.”
These inter-club cups are not the big ones.
“I don't think it’s the fact that we won that trophy,” said Osorio. “We were more happy for the fans that we won, not because of silverware. More than anything, the result of that game is what really opened our eyes, really got us going and gave us confidence going into the rest of the year.”
“It showed us that we had a lot of depth along with a great starting XI. We were a strong team and it came out all in that game,” he added. “It got us setting our goals really high and really believing that we were going to achieve everything we set out to get.”
It was a magical moment in a magical year.
Three years removed the memories of that season still reverberate.
“Being young and still making my way, learning my way, through the professional ranks, it was one of those things,” reflected Bono. “People play an entire career and don't get opportunities to win any trophies. The experiences that we shared that year as a team, even now when we talk about it, the core of guys that are left from that, we say it all the time, because we know that feeling of what it was like, we want to get back there because it felt so damn good.”
“A feeling of everything is clicking, we have the right pieces, everyone is working on a daily basis as hard as they can, making sure that on game day everyone is prepared and everyone is going to bring their A game. There were never any questions, there are never any doubts. That's rare for even any championship team,” he continued. “We never second guessed, ‘Can we do this?’ That thought never crossed your mind; it wasn't allowed to cross your mind. There's not one person who said, ‘Maybe we're just not built for it or maybe we just don't have it.’ Everyone just knew. And when you know and the confidence flows through you because of that, that feeling and that knowledge that you're the best team, that no one can beat you. If they bring their A game and we bring our C game, we can pull a win.”
“Now I've seen every end of the spectrum in terms of emotion and confidence, that's really rare. The confidence that we had, mixed with the ability we had, and the team camaraderie we had,” he added. “It goes to show how special I hold that 2017 team and what we did that year.”
In May against Columbus what would follow over the next 11 months, with more trophies and finals and the like, was still just a dream, an aspiration.
“Like I said, some play their whole career without having a chance to win any trophies and for us to be able to do that the year before, add a couple pieces, and just run the table like we did,” concluded Bono. “It's a special thing to be a part of that.”