Toronto FC's time was supposed to be over. Sebastian Giovinco, the club's best-ever player, left this past winter following a season that saw the team capitulate following an MLS Cup triumph. That era, the one which saw Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders duel for back-to-back MLS Cups, was done, with the nouveau riche like Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United now in charge.
In a league like MLS, no team can stay on top forever. That fact remains true. But, on Wednesday, Toronto FC proved something. They proved that faces may change, their foes may grow and the circumstances may be much, much different, but Toronto FC's time is not yet over.
Toronto FC went to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and took down the defending MLS Cup champions on Wednesday night, grinding out a 2-1 victory over Atlanta United to seal a third MLS Cup berth in four years. While Toronto FC's road to their first two MLS Cup appearances were headlined by swashbuckling soccer, Wednesday night's match featured little of that. Instead, it featured the kind of resilience developed by a team that knew exactly what they were in for.
The home crowd didn't have to wait long to explode with Atlanta surging into the lead in a matter of moments. It was a perfectly-executed counter-attack, one former manager Tata Martino would be proud of, with big-money signings Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez doing the bulk of the work. Barco found Martinez, who darted through the defense and in on goal. Rather than taking the shot, he slid a pass to Julian Gressel for the early finish, seizing the momentum.
Just a few minutes later, the roof nearly came off as Martinez was dragged down the box by Michael Bradley, who was also beaten on the goal sequence moments prior. Fortunately for Bradley, and for Toronto FC, Quentin Westburg was able to palm away Josef Martinez's shot. It was a chance for Atlanta United to effectively end the match within 10 minutes. That chance, though, was wasted.
That feeling of missed opportunity became all too real for Atlanta in the 14th minute, when Toronto FC made something out of nothing to level the match at one apiece. Nicolas Benezet's curled effort was more hopeful than anything, but that little bit of hope produced a goal, finding the bottom corner. Moments earlier, Atlanta could have effectively booked their MLS Cup spot but now, the game could truly begin.
The ensuing 60 minutes or so played out in a series of deja vus. Atlanta United would get the ball and attack, creating danger from its trio of South American stars. Toronto FC would collapse back and find a way to clear, only to see its midfield overrun by Atlanta's. Toronto FC spent large chunks of the match unable to get out of their own half, and it felt like only a matter of time.
Not content with that, TFC boss Greg Vanney attempted to change the tone of the match via substitutions. One of those moves was to bring on Nick DeLeon. Known for scoring big playoff goals with D.C. United, DeLeon picked an ideal time to fire his fifth postseason finish in his first season with Toronto FC. And it was perhaps the finest he's scored, as DeLeon spun all through the Atlanta defense before firing a 20-yard missile into the top corner.
Toronto bent, but they didn't break. They took Atlanta's hits and stood firm. Then, when their moment came, they seized it, and now they're heading to MLS Cup yet again.
In years past, it was Toronto that dominated play much like Atlanta United did on Wednesday. From 2015-17, Toronto were the class of MLS. They played teams off the field like Atlanta United did to them on Wednesday.
But it was perhaps a lesson learned from a few years ago that stuck for Vanney and several of his players. In the 2016 MLS Cup, Toronto FC held the Seattle Sounders to zero shots. They dominated the ball, controlled the play, generated chances, but they left BMO Field trophyless. They couldn't have played much better, but they lost anyway.
On Wednesday, they hit Atlanta United with that same rope-a-dope to seal their third MLS Cup final appearance in four seasons. The team awaiting them? The Seattle Sounders, who defined the odds themselves to take down LAFC. How fitting.
"We owe them a home game," Vanney told Fox Sports just after the win, kickstarting the road to a rubber match for the ages that looked almost impossible just days ago.