For Toronto FC, the stigma of being the worst Canadian team in MLS as well as the first has proven hard to eradicate.
Though Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012) entered MLS long after TFC’s 2007 entry into the league, both made the playoffs before TFC’s belated breakthrough last season. Montreal’s remarkable run to the Concacaf Champions League finals last year etched yet another scar into the psyche of an organization robustly supported by its fan base and blessed with a superb facility that this year reopened with an increased capacity of 30,000.
Squeaking into the playoffs last year assuaged the angst only moderately. Of the 12 postseason qualifiers, Toronto’s 15-15-4 record (49 points) ranked 12th. In the Knockout Round, Montreal disdainfully swept aside TFC, 3-0, and thus reinforced perceptions that the steps taken by the Reds by making the playoffs -- the bare minimum expected from a roster that included MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. internationals Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley -- were baby steps at best.
This season, the TFC has taken huge strides. Undaunted by an eight-game road slog necessitated by the completion of BMO renovations, Toronto FC has steadily hung tough in the standings as upstart New York City FC and resurgent Philadelphia hogged the headlines. On Wednesday, TFC surged past NYCFC into first place by beating Orlando City, 2-1, and can pad its lead at the top when it hosts Montreal on Saturday. (NYCFC plays at Orlando Sunday.)
“My message to the team was not to relax now,” said head coach Greg Vanney after TFC captured its sixth win in the last seven games. “There’s more teams that we need to look ahead of us. We want to continue to climb and get better every game and improve on things that we need to improve upon and not to relax now because we think we’ve accomplished something because we still haven’t accomplished anything. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
TFC scored early (Toisant Ricketts) and late (Jozy Altidore) to tame the Lions, who needed several spectacular saves from keeper Joe Bendik to stay in the game. Orlando equalized early in the second half yet TFC – unlike past versions that probably would have defended desperately to get the point -- kept pressing for the victory. An amazing Bendik reflex save thwarted a point-blank Altidore header; still TFC pushed forward and got its reward in the 86th minute when Giovinco, who had set up Ricketts’ goal with a quick throw-in, played Altidore in behind the OCSC back line. He rounded Bendik to score in a fourth consecutive game.
“I just want to stay focused,” said Altidore, whose hamstring problems have apparently subsided. He had replaced Ricketts in the 58th minute with the Montreal encounter in mind. “We have a lot of work to do. The common goal for us is to do something special this year and that's my focus. Any way I can help the team do that is what I want to do first and foremost.”
Giovinco is buzzing along towards another possible MVP award, and with Bradley healthy and Altidore converting chances – he’s scored five goals in his last six games – along with boisterous crowds pouring into BMO regularly, TFC is beginning to earn mention as a bonafide title contender rather than playoff participant. It plays six of its last eight at BMO Field, where it has won five straight games and is 7-1-3 for the season.
“It’s good to see all the hard work pay off,” said Altidore. “Our goal coming into the season was to build off of last season and I think we're doing that. It's important to not get complacent. There's still a long way to go and there's still a lot of games to play. We want to keep moving towards the top so we have to keep working.”