MLS Cup crown caps Toronto FC's transformation from joke to juggernaut

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Not so recently dismissed as a perennial bottom-feeder, TFC rode star power and a change in culture to perhaps the finest campaign in MLS history

TORONTO — When Toronto FC lore looks back upon the 2017 MLS Cup final, a chapter will be devoted to Jozy Altidore and the finish that brought the treble to BMO Field. Greg Vanney's tactical masterclass has to make an appearance, as well. A redemption arc looms large after Sebastian Giovinco and Co. dethroned a Seattle Sounders team that celebrated here a year ago.

And then there's the Uber driver who inadvertently put fate in Michael Bradley's back pocket.

It was in 2014 that Bradley kick-started TFC's transformation from joke to juggernaut, joining Jermain Defoe in the dual signing famously pegged as a "Bloody Big Deal." As Bradley touched down in Toronto for the first time, the driver steered him to BMO Field via the Gardiner Expressway along Lake Ontario.

In the nearly four years since, Bradley never again took the route to his home field — until his driver went that way Friday for the final training session before the MLS Cup final.

"I'm not necessarily a huge believer in fate and things like that," Bradley said. "But to kind of have it come full circle, to finish things off this year in this way ... it was indescribable."

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While Defoe spent just a single season in Toronto, those signings changed the perception of a TFC team that had finished ninth in the Eastern Conference in 2013 — marking seven straight campaigns without a trip to the playoffs.

The market's potential was always evident. An obsessive supporters' culture took root in the club's inaugural 2007 season, with all of the ingredients seemingly in place for a flagship MLS franchise. But a series of personnel misfires followed, as European journeymen — often aging, expensive and ineffective — arrived one after the other. A once-intense atmosphere gave way to empty seats and fans with paper bags over their heads.

"I've been in this league since TFC's been around, and it's an organization that seems like it's always tried to do the right things," Toronto defender Drew Moor said. "They had a bit of learning curve."

Sebastian Giovinco quote GFX

A year after the "Bloody Big Deal," TFC took a second crack at splashing the cash on a core of stars: Defoe returned to England, with Giovinco and Altidore joining Bradley at BMO Field.

Giovinco has been a sensation from day one, to the tune of 59 goals and 42 assists since he arrived from Juventus. The physical Altidore has been the ideal complement up top, recording a double-digit goal haul the past three seasons. Bradley has set the tone on and off the field, commanding the midfield with a blend of tenacity and soccer IQ.

"We went through adding just the right people first and foremost, and guys who are able to focus and able to give everything they can to a project and do that every single day," said Vanney, who took over late in the 2014 season. "The second part is creating an environment where everybody feels like they're bought in and they're a part of something special and what they're doing is going to make a difference, and is going to be a reason why, at the end of the day, they're going to lift trophies."

Toronto finally ended that postseason drought in 2015, but the run lasted just one game — an emphatic loss in Montreal. Yet there was enough progress to convince a veteran free agent like Moor that this team was on the cusp of a title. A BMO Field expansion that pushed the capacity past 30,000 gave TFC even more gravitas. By the time Toronto dropped the 2016 MLS Cup final to the Sounders, there was no doubting the club's powerhouse credentials.

When Altidore connected with that Giovinco through ball Saturday, lifting his shot over the onrushing Stefan Frei and into the back of the net, BMO Field erupted. That goal was a year in the making, as a pinned-back Seattle side managed to hold TFC scoreless through 187 minutes spanning two MLS Cup finals. But the fans' euphoria also stemmed from a decade of misery and heartbreak that unfolded before the moment arrived.

"It's special because the city waited for a long time for this win," Giovinco said. "This is what I came for — to win. I'm very happy, for the team especially, for the city and the fans."

Altidore added: "The way [the fans] celebrate our goals, it's like they're living and dying with us. I know it's like that with a lot of fan bases, but these people have suffered for a long time. They've had to come watch games where their team is getting dominated, and people who really didn't care about the city, about what's being built here, would have left the team."

And this TFC side isn't any old champion. Toronto is the first MLS team to complete the treble, having claimed the Canadian Championship and won the Supporters' Shield in record-breaking fashion. By whatever metric a club's success can be measured — trophies, star power, passion — TFC has taken its place atop the MLS crowd.

"A lot of people didn't want us to win a treble," midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. "Don't question me ever again about that — we're the best team in MLS history."

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