NEWS
12/10/2017 09:43 EST | Updated 12/12/2017 04:23 EST

Toronto FC endured real-life tragedy en route to MLS championship run

TORONTO — When fans look back at Toronto FC's 2017 championship season, they will recall Jozy Altidore's goalscoring heroics, Sebastian Giovinco's magic moves, captain Michael Bradley's unflinching leadership and Greg Vanney's cerebral coaching skills.

Toronto capped off a record-breaking 69-point, 20-win regular season with a dominant 2-0 MLS Cup final win Saturday over the Seattle Sounders.

"This is what it's all about. Lifting trophies," said Bradley.

But while TFC kept rolling, there was no shortage of real-life trauma behind the scenes. Like the proverbial duck, the team looked smooth on the surface but sometimes was paddling furiously below to stay afloat.

"People don't know. I mean there's a lot of things that go on," said defender Nick Hagglund, who had to fight back from two knee injuries.

"There's a lot of adversity that went on," he added. "That was what was great about this team. As a locker-room we were a family. We took care of each other. I think you saw tonight when someone made a mistake, the next person was there to clean it up.

"Off-the field things carried onto the on-field and I think that's what created the success this year." 

Real life interrupted sports all season.

The father of Jim Liston, the team's director of sports science, passed away the week of the final.

But April truly was the cruellest month for TFC.

Vanney's mother — and grandmother of Toronto defender Eriq Zavaleta — died in April.

"As a lot of moms, she was probably my No. 1 fan in the grand scheme of things," said Vanney. "She was the one in the stands yelling at the referees when I didn't get calls ... I know she's proud."

The same month, midfielder Armando Cooper learned that Panama and former CD Arabe Unido teammate Amilcar Henriquez had been shot to death. The tragic news was mixed with the joy of the birth of Cooper's daughter just days later.

And defender Drew Moor missed seven games after being sidelined with a cardiac arrhythmia — or irregular heartbeat — in April thanks to the heart monitors and GPS chips the players wear during practice.

Doctors found a minor defect in his heart which they were able to correct via a 3 1/2-hour procedure in Boston called an ablation to restore normal heart rhythm.

Fullback Steven Beitashour found himself in the operating room after a brutal on-field collision with Montreal Impact defender Kyle Fisher in the Canadian Championship final June 27. He underwent surgery after being diagnosed with a lacerated pancreas — an injury more often seen in car crashes or stabbings. The laceration resulted in toxins excreting into his body.

Beitashour missed seven games, a recovery that included having draining tubes in his side after the surgery. 

Defender Chris Mavinga's pre-season was shadowed by the impending birth of his daughter in France — one of several additions to the team this season.

When Mavinga make his first start, against Atlanta in early April, he proved vulnerable. But Vanney kept faith. Mavinga sat out the next four matches before returning to play 23 of the remaining 25 regular-season games.

Toronto believes Mavinga merited defender of the year consideration.

A halftime tunnel melee during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the New York Red Bulls proved to be an unwelcome distraction with Altidore unsuccessfully appealing his red card and accompanying one-game suspension.

Giovinco's season included niggling injuries, the occasional tantrum and another MLS MVP finalist honour. But the mercurial Italian scored what proved to be the key goal — via yet another marvellous free kick — in the fractious playoff series with the Red Bulls despite missing the return leg trough suspension.

And he set up both goals in the final.

Giovinco split the Seattle defence in the 67th minute to set Altidore loose. And then deep in stoppage time he found Cooper. 

The Panamanian substitute, who played just 152 minutes in the final 16 games of a disappointing season, sidestepped 'keeper Stefan Frei with a beautiful move only to see his shot thud off the goalpost. Victor Vazquez was Johnny-on-the-spot, knocking the ball in for the insurance goal Saturday.

Bradley and Altidore suffered through a torrent of abuse in Atlanta, New York and Columbus after the failed U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign. While both shrugged it off, it must have hurt.

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin was the essence of class after losing his starting job to Alex Bono after suffering an injury in the home opener. 

Other players kept their lip buttoned as they watched from the bench or the stands.

Credit Vanney, his coaching staff and the front office. Toronto has become a model, winning franchise. The team is looked after on and off the field. Players want to come here.

"They enjoy one another," said Vanney. "That's really a special thing to have."

Added Altidore: "When I say this is a special place, I mean it," 

In an era where selfish social media pronouncements, hard-to-fathom salaries and me-first attitudes distance some pro athletes from supporters, Altidore and Bradley have consistently gone out of their way to praise and connect with TFC fans.

They understand what the fan base has gone through — and what the BMO Field faithful means to the team.

"It gives you this feeling like there is only one possible outcome. And that's that we win," Bradley said of the fan support

It's ironic that Bradley was overshadowed when he signed with Toronto the same day as Jermain Defoe in January 2014. While the England striker lasted one season, Bradley became the engine of the team.

The U.S. captain shines very brightly in the Toronto locker-room. But he showed his human side Saturday, acknowledging that he has to dial down his single-mindedness at times "to make sure I don't wear guys out."

He also realized the message had got through to his teammates.

"With this team there was never one moment when I looked around and felt like guys were losing focus or were forgetting about what we were trying to do. Everything was about getting back here (to the final) ... every single guy laser-focused to give ourselves another chance," he said.

Bradley, who deserved MVP consideration this season, played every minute of every game he appeared in. On Saturday, he was simply immense in the final.

"His bald head was everywhere," marvelled Altidore.

"I really don't have words to say about Michael because he embodies this team completely," said Hagglund. "Who we are, what we're about, how we walk out onto a field starts with him.

"He has led us incredibly over these last four years. There's no one that takes the wins and the losses more personally than him. He came her to win championships and he just did that."

"An amazing leader, an amazing captain," he added. "I'd walk into any battlefield with him any day."

The statistics show Toronto's dominance in the final.

Toronto outshot Seattle 22-7 (11-2 in shots on target), had 56.9 per cent possession and won 70.7 per cent of duels, the highest duel success rate of any team in any MLS game this season, according to Opta Sports.

"We are the best team in MLS," said Vazquez.

The Spanish playmaker led all players Saturday with 103 touches. Only four players this season had at least 100 touches, four chances created and a goal in an MLS game this season. Vazquez did it twice in 2017.

"Playing with Seba and Jozy is easy," he said.

___

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter