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Stefan Frei nearly denies Toronto FC destiny again

Sunday 10th December 2017

Saturday’s 2-0 MLS Cup victory over Seattle Sounders raised Toronto FC to a level previously unreached in Major League Soccer, but a former TFC player nearly denied his old side for a second year running.

The franchise business model employed in Canada and the United States has produced a term not used elsewhere. Save for New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, cities tend to have just one top flight team per sport. Of course, most fans still have several options from which to choose, including American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer. Enthusiasm for all earns some metropolitan areas the moniker 'sports town'. Others find the term prefixed by ‘not a’.

In the US, New York, Chicago, Boston, and, to an unrivaled extreme, Philadelphia, are definitely sports towns. Miami and LA, not so much.

Toronto is definitely a sports town. Being a Canadian city, hockey obviously rules. Both the NHL Maple Leafs and their AHL b-team, the Marlies, boast legions of followers. Yet, Toronto has also embraced baseball’s Blue Jays and the NBA Raptors. Its fans have largely rejected an NFL franchise, remaining stubbornly loyal to the CFL Argonauts despite that team's tendency to play well below expectations.

When TFC joined MLS, it too drew a defiantly partisan following. In its first few seasons the side made up for lack of talent with grit and hustle. When an ill-managed partnership with Ajax was formed, driving the club down to the lowest rungs in the table, those supporters continued to wear red.

Among the best loved players during that time was goalkeeper Stefan Frei. That affection can at least be partially attributed to hockey’s influence. A long-held belief in that game is that you simply can’t win a Stanley Cup without good goaltending. Frei is a good goaltender.

Last season, as the Seattle shot stopper, the Swiss palmed aside a Jozy Altidore header labeled for the upper 90. The MLS Cup final thus remained scoreless for 120 minutes. Frei again proved the difference in penalties. The Sounders, not TFC, won their first MLS Cup.

This season, the task was more daunting for Frei. Toronto had given MLS the league's best-ever regular season performance, accumulating 69 points and scoring 74 goals in 34 matches while conceding a league-low 37. That earned Greg Vanney’s squad the Supporters Shield. It also brought home the Canadian Championship, the nation’s in-season cup competition. If they could get past Frei and the Sounders this time around, the Reds would achieve something no other MLS side ever had: a domestic treble.

For the first hour, that didn’t look like happening. Toronto was dominant everywhere on the pitch but Frei’s six-yard box. The home side bossed possession, spurred on by 32,000 red-clad maniacs armed with banners, streamers, and flares. Another few thousand were watching from across the road, in Liberty Park.

If Seattle reclaimed the ball, they didn’t get far. Every TFC player was committed to playing both in attack and defence. Sounders with the ball at their feet were quickly dispossessed. Playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro looked more like a darts champion than a gifted number ten. Meanwhile, Toronto peppered Frei in a fairly good imitation of Arsenal v David de Gea.

Frei, whose hipster beard, tall gaunt frame, and pale alpine complexion resemble a cross between the Spanish keeper and an extra on The Walking Dead, made nine saves, including three from Sebastian Giovinco, a couple from Jozy Altidore, and a pair of long-range corkscrews from Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley. By comparison, Reds number one Alex Bono only had to deal with two tame efforts.

The old adage about not taking your chances began to creep into the home narrative. In the 67th minute, Seattle broke up a Toronto attack and quickly assembled its best counter-attacking movement of the match. Yet, TFC was still resolute. Veteran center back Drew Moor broke it up at the top of the eighteen. Michael Bradley then began the old counter-counterattack.

Two quick, direct passes later, the ball was on Giovinco’s foot on the other side of the centre circle. Moving to his right, he slotted a ball through for Altidore to run onto. The big forward took control, angled away from a pursuing Joevin Jones, then chipped over an onrushing Frei. The US international had scored the first goal between the two sides in more than three hours of MLS Cup play. When Seattle had at last stuck its neck out, it proved too far.

Brian Schmetzer sent on young sensation Jordan Morris, still not 100% after a severe injury. The Sounders looked slightly more dangerous, but Toronto never lost its confidence or composure. Deep into stoppage time, Giovinco fed substitute Armando Cooper, who was denied by the woodwork rather than Frei. The ball bounced into Victor Vazquez’s midriff. The Spaniard’s momentum knocked it into goal to put the match away. A furious Frei looked like a single David, alone against eleven goliaths,  just ten stones in his pouch.

Toronto FC had completed the most dominant season in Major League Soccer’s short history. The unparalleled domestic treble was theirs.

There is more to do. A chance to bring the Concacaf Champions League trophy this side of Donald Trump’s imaginary wall looms. As does the opportunity to defend its newly won titles. The Reds attacking quintet are all in or entering their prime. Bradley, Giovinco, and Vazquez are 30. Altidore is 28. Osorio is a youthful 25. Influential left back Justin Morrow is also 30, promising midfielder Marco Delgado just 22. This is a side capable of repeating.

General Manager (read as sporting director) Tim Bezbatchenko has built a juggernaut. If he can continue to push all the right buttons, maybe the dynasty MLS sorely needs.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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