Toronto FC heartbroken but resolved to rebound, fight for MLS Cup in 2017
TORONTO, Canada -- The pain on the faces of Toronto FC's players was palpable. How could it not be after the most crushing of losses, 5-4 on penalty kicks to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday after a scoreless MLS Cup final that really shouldn't have been?
The Reds had their chances to go ahead in the match both early and late and send a record BMO Field crowd of more than 36,000 long-suffering fans into the frigid night air celebrating the championship season they'd been dreaming about since they arrived in the league a decade ago.
They couldn't do it.
"Some days a team can dominate all they want and the ball just won't go in the net," red-eyed Reds midfielder and Toronto native Jonathan Osorio told reporters afterward. "It wasn't meant to be for us this year."
On another night, TFC forward Jozy Altidore might have been holding the Cup and MVP trophies when it was over. But he flashed a shot wide in the opening moments and was denied by Sounders keeper Stefan Frei's ungodly save in the first extra time period; Frei ended up taking home the hardware instead. And when the contest went to the tiebreaker, there was a sense in the stadium -- and on the sideline -- that the Reds had squandered a golden opportunity.
"In all honesty, when it comes down to penalty kicks, I was a little bit numb," coach Greg Vanney said during his post-match news conference. "By that time, the game was gone in a sense. I was in a position where I was disappointed with penalty kicks.
"Such a hard-fought season and this game in particular, and for it to end in penalty kicks, it's just not the way you want to finish a game like that."
Whenever the suffering eventually wears off, though -- and whenever big-spending TFC inevitably does take a title -- 2016 will be looked back upon as the season when the league's most historically hard-luck club finally turned its fortunes around.
"There are a lot of lessons to take away from this run that I think will only make us better going into next year and stronger as a group as we try to get back to this and come away winners," Vanney said.
Sometimes teams have to lose to win. It took seven consecutive postseason failures for the Sounders to reach the summit. Toronto used the embarrassment of being routed by rival Montreal in the club's first playoff game in 2015 to help it get to this year's title match, beating the Impact along the way. Getting this close to glory cuts so deep; the idea for the hosts is that they will redouble their efforts in an attempt to avoid ever feeling that way again.
That was the message in TFC's dressing room, and it wasn't just lip service.
"This one is going to sting for a little while, there's no two ways about it," TFC captain Michael Bradley said. "Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.
"But ultimately, the hope is that at some point when you can start to process it all, that both individually and collectively we're able to use this as even more fuel for what we're trying to do. That we use it to make us even more determined and make sure that the group is able to use this. Not only are we coming back to this point, but when we do get back to this point we're better for it and we're ready to take the next step."
There's no reason in the world the Reds can't do it. Toronto's three designated players, Altidore, Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco, are all still on the right side of 30. A revamped defense that posted three shutouts in six postseason games (including on Saturday) will have an extra year of experience together. Vanney, whose cool demeanor and tactical acumen impressed greatly during this run, will be an even better coach. The Reds have gone from being the most dysfunctional organization in MLS to enjoying one of their best runs over the past three seasons.
This is not the same old TFC, even if the heartbreaking ending is a familiar feeling for its supporters. The Reds will be back.
"I'm proud of the team, I'm proud of the organization," Altidore said. "The whole city was behind us and you kind of feel like we let them down, but I don't think we did. I think we showed them what this could be.
"There's a long period now to reflect, refuel and try to get back at it again. It's a tough pill to swallow, but at the end of the day, we've made a lot of steps forward as a club."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.