TORONTO — For such a beloved game, soccer can be extremely cruel.
Consider the case Toronto FC, which seemed like a team of destiny this year after it rode its way through a rollercoaster playoff campaign to the brink of the MLS Cup, only to have it snatched away on its own turf by the slimmest of margins.
Despite dominating the stat sheet against the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field on Saturday night, TFC had to watch as the Cascadian visitors celebrated following a 5-4 victory on penalty kicks. The actual game ended 0-0 after 120 minutes of action, even though Toronto boasted a 7-0 advantage in the shots on goal department.
It was the first ever MLS Cup final won by a team that failed to register a shot on target.
"After 120 minutes, to lose the game when the other team didn't have a shot on goal — what can you do?" TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin asked rhetorically. "But that's the game. This is what soccer is when you get to a cup final."
Irwin was perhaps the loneliest man in the stadium on Saturday, after having watched his team continue to stifle the Sounders' attack in the run of play. The goalkeeper was eventually called upon during the deciding penalty shootout, and the 27-year-old made one stop in the spot kicks — the same amount as Seattle's Stefan Frei.
The difference was a Justin Morrow effort that struck the crossbar, which was followed by Roman Torres' winning spot kick.
"It's never easy to lose and to get that close where we're talking about inches on penalties that we didn't convert and inches where I can make a save," Irwin lamented. "It's almost one of those fate type of things that you can't control."
What TFC could control was the efforts it put on goal in the 120 minutes of open play, and the Reds very nearly put themselves ahead in the second minute as Jozy Altidore pushed a shot just wide of Frei's net. From then on out it only looked like one team was going to score on the night, as Toronto poured in 19 total shots to Seattle's three.
However, a dogged defensive effort by the Sounders saw 10 of TFC's attempts blocked, while the ones that weren't were either handled by Frei — sometimes spectacularly — or simply hit wide.
There just wasn't enough incisiveness in front of goal from the hosts.
"At the end of the day we didn't do what we had to do tonight," Altidore said. "At the same time I'm proud of the team, I'm proud of the organization, but we're hungry for more. We need to put a little more work in — a lot more work in — and come back from it."
While there's lots of time to plan for next season, the feeling of lost opportunity will be an extremely tough one to shake. Head coach Greg Vanney has been part of three MLS Cup-losing sides as a player, but he said the pain of being on the sidelines in a losing effort isn't much different.
"I know what it feels like to be in the locker room and be one of those guys as I am now on the other side of it, but I know what it's like, and you start thinking about every play, every moment, everything that could have been a little bit different, and it hurts," Vanney said, adding that he hasn't quite processed the enormity of the loss. "I'm sure it will hit me and I will break down at some point, but right now I'm just a little bit numb."
Irwin echoed his coach's sentiments, reflecting on a wild postseason that saw TFC set a league record for goals in a single playoff run yet somehow get shut out at home in the cup final.
"It's just really hasn't sunk in," Irwin said. "We've battled so hard throughout this season, from being down to being up in the Montreal [conference final games], and the tough thing is that we've given so much. Every single guy here has put a lot into the season and for it to come down to those key moments in the game... It all happened so quickly and it's over.
"And you don't really know what to feel or what to do, it's just over. There's no words to describe it."