On a day when Major League Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association announced new initiatives to help strengthen the connection between the U.S.-based league and its Canadian clubs, Toronto FC took the field and provided a perfect example of what can happen when you have Canadian and American cooperation.
TFC became the first Canadian team to reach an MLS Cup final with its thrilling extra-time victory over the Montreal Impact, and did so with the help of a strong American nucleus. From coach Greg Vanney to captain Michael Bradley and star forward Jozy Altidore, the American contingent stepped up to help end Toronto's decade of disappointment with a victory for the ages.
If you needed a sense of just what Wednesday's win meant to TFC and its long-suffering fans, you needed only see the postgame celebration. It was one filled with unbridled joy and a sense of relief normally reserved for a championship game, but it was a cathartic celebration fueled by so many years of disappointment for a team that has floundered for so long before beginning to turn things around in recent years.
That turnaround began when TFC's Canadian owners hired American general manager Tim Bezbatchenko three years ago and gave him the task of revamping a club that had never made the playoffs before. He in turn hired Vanney, despite a lack of head coaching experience.
The pair proceeded to revamp the roster and, along with landing a game-changing superstar in Sebastian Giovinco, convinced the team to spend big on a pair of American stars in Altidore and Bradley. It was a strategy met with plenty of skepticism from Toronto fans who didn't believe the Americans were worth the big-money salaries they were being paid.
This year, both men have shown their worth — never more so than in the series against Montreal. Altidore was the star of the night Wednesday, continuing his torrid run of form with a goal and an assist in an overpowering performance that set the tone for TFC all night. The U.S. striker never tired, and found energy in extra time to help set up the final goal of the night.
Bradley did his part in midfield, putting in defensive work all over the field (including a game-high 12 recoveries) to help keep Montreal's dangerous counterattack under wraps. The Impact did still manage to break through on a pair of goals, but TFC's all-American defense did well to eventually stifle Montreal's attack down the stretch, and in extra time.
TFC's American defenders contributed to the attack as well, with Nick Hagglund heading home a Justin Morrow cross for the series-tying goal that eventually forced extra time. The goal was one of several contributions from Hagglund, who cleaned up a whopping eight clearances in the penalty area to go with six recoveries outside the penalty area.
Vanney deserves particular credit for Toronto's playoff run, and season as a whole. TFC endured key injuries throughout the season, as well as international call-ups, and through it all Vanney leaned on a strong bench he and Bezbatchenko built to continue earning results. Vanney's cultivation of his bench wound up playing a key role in the playoff triumph over Montreal, as evidenced by the goals scored by substitutes Benoit Cheyrou and Tosaint Ricketts.
TFC's run to the MLS Cup final had its Canadian flavor as well, from the impressive crowds at BMO Field to the contributions of Will Johnson, Jonathan Osorio and Ricketts, who played key roles throughout the postseason — and once again Wednesday night.
Interestingly enough, though TFC's lineup is dominated by Americans (seven started Wednesday, not including Iran international and U.S. native Steven Beitashour) TFC was still the more Canadian of the two teams that took the field for Wednesday's seven-goal thriller. Patrice Bernier was the lone Canadian to play for Montreal on Wednesday, while three took the field for TFC.
The fans clad in red at BMO Field probably cared very little about the ratio of Americans and Canadians that played Wednesday. All they cared about was the fact TFC's team had officially buried its underachiever label and finally realized the potential the club had shown since its early days a decade ago.
After watching different coaches and players from Canada and beyond struggle to make TFC a winner, there had to be a few Toronto fans who noticed the heavy American influence on the current team and appreciate the role they have played in the club's transformation.
That should make for an interesting scene in nine days at the MLS Cup final when the Seattle Sounders visit BMO Field. There are sure to be storylines about Toronto being the first Canadian club to reach the final, and about how this is a clash of an American team against a Canadian team, but the reality is TFC could actually wind up with twice as many American starters in the final as the Sounders.
That doesn't mean Toronto's fans won't still belt out "O Canada" before the match, but those same fans should take a moment during the U.S. anthem to appreciate the Americans who have helped Canada's first MLS team finally realize its vast potential.