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Toronto FC fans clap in unison during a July 2 game against Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.

Dan Hamilton

It began with the seat covers that poured from the heavens after the club's first goal. Then there were the streamers hurled over opposing players, the massive, handcrafted banners that made icons of journeymen pros, and fans so raucous that their joyful leaping popped the rivets right out from underneath the stands.

For 10 years, supporters of Toronto FC were renowned for being wildly passionate about a mostly pitiable club. But this season an awakening has taken the team and its fans to the brink of glory, giving Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and company a chance to lift the MLS Cup if they can summon a final win against Seattle at BMO Field on Saturday.

It feels like a fitting reward for those who persevered through the lean years, when TFC routinely snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and plumbed unknown depths of managerial incompetence.

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I will be among them, as I have been for most of TFC's history, sitting in the west stands with my brother and my nephew and the friends we've made among the other season ticket holders around us over those years.

People who've only seen the games on television always ask about the atmosphere. Why are the fans so passionate?

I can only reply that there's something about supporting this team that gets in your bones.

David Miller, Toronto's former mayor, a season ticket holder from the start and a man practised in the art of identifying the words and thoughts that bind a community, says even he struggles to describe the culture of the TFC fan. "It's more a feeling when you're there," he says.

"It's not easy to articulate, but I would say patient, loyal, resilient. Most of all, the TFC supporter realizes that their direct participation in supporting the team, through buying tickets and going to games and cheering, actually makes a difference for the team on the field. That's part of the culture, too, the steadfast belief that if we do our part the team will have a much better chance to do its part," Mr. Miller said, with the caveat that belief doesn't necessarily make it true.

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He attends matches with his children or his neighbours. He thinks what makes the TFC crowd different from the Raptors or the Leafs is that soccer is less of a show to sit back and consume. At TFC, fans feel compelled to be part of the action.

"There's a feeling of community, of solidarity, of joy, of apprehension, when you're a TFC fan. … Being part of a group that's singing songs and urging the team on to victory is just incredibly fun," Mr. Miller said.

There have been bad times, to be sure. In 2013 the club reached a nadir when it fired its still relatively new president, Kevin Payne, and was threatening to remove the natural-grass field to accommodate a new tenant, the CFL's Toronto Argos. Mr. Miller spoke up in an angry, public letter, and announced he was returning his season ticket.

"At that point in time we had gone through something like seven coaches in five years … in a team that needed stability it just seemed crazy," Mr. Miller said.

"I still get stopped on the street by people saying thank you for sending that letter."

The fan culture of the west and east stands is relatively restrained in comparison with the south stand behind the goal, where the supporters' groups reign. These are the fans often featured on TV, shirtless, shrouded in smoke, jumping and singing to the beat of a drum.

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The Red Patch Boys are the largest with about 350 members, and next to them is U-Sector, which traces its roots back before TFC to earlier iterations of pro soccer in Toronto.

Then there's the Inebriatti, a younger group that styles itself as the hardest of the hard core and whose philosophy is closer in style to the Ultras that follow European clubs.

There are also other groups including Kings in the North, which claims about 150 members. Dave Pinto, a 29-year-old accountant, is their president.

He explained that the groups have different philosophies, but their presidents speak almost daily, making plans and organizing tifos, the large banners unfurled at games.

The fans in his section range from blue collar to white collar, with people of all ages, class backgrounds and ethnicities. It's slightly more male than the city in general, and perhaps slightly more Anglo, Scottish and Irish, but it's otherwise demographically comparable to the city, he said.

The data tend to back that up. Survey research shows that TFC fans are young and cosmopolitan, according to Kaan Yigit, founder of Solutions Research Group.

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They have the second-youngest average age among fans of Toronto sports teams, next to the Raptors, and ahead of the Leafs and Jays. About 40 per cent are born outside Canada, and 40 per cent also speak a language other than English at home.

Mr. Pinto played some soccer growing up and always liked the sport, but what drew him to TFC, and what unites the supporters, he says, is the thrill of creating something special in the stadium.

"A lot of times passion is downplayed in other sports, especially in the crowd. It's not always welcome in other arenas in North America, but it's really an area here where people who have a passion for one thing are grouped together and it just elevates that passion for the sport, for the team and for the city," Mr. Pinto said.

Now that the spotlight is on TFC, people are coming out of the woodwork to ask for tickets or interviews, but even in the lean years Mr. Pinto said he never minded the sense of being overlooked.

"I think that's what builds the bonds among the people that are here now, knowing that we were there when the team was shit, as the song goes," Mr. Pinto said. "That's a point of pride for us."

Boris Roberto Aguilar, a 31-year-old IT professional, is a past president of the Red Patch Boys. Mr. Aguilar said he was a soccer fan before MLS arrived in Toronto in 2007, but hadn't really followed the league. He wasn't sure if the team would catch on, but he wanted to be part of it.

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"Toronto is a strange, fickle city when it comes to sports teams. I find that, if it's not top tier, people tend not to give it a chance," Mr. Aguilar said.

He remembers Danny Dichio's goal, the first in club history, which triggered a 10-minute delay as fans went haywire, throwing the seat cushions given away by the club onto the pitch.

"I can't even explain the excitement I felt," he said. "I remember seeing those seat covers flying and you couldn't help yourself but join in. That's really where the fandom took over. Having a stadium-wide celebration, impromptu, really solidified at an early time in the team's history that there's something special going on here."

As the seasons have progressed he has organized fan protests, such as the time supporters wore green because it was the only language MLSE could understand, and been part of tributes to club legends like Mr. Dichio. He has also watched as the people around him have built a community that feels more like family than anything else.

"One of the most special things about this playoff run has been that reflection, just seeing how people have grown up, changed, the friends I've made, how many people are married, with their own families through TFC, and it's been just a heck of a ride."

Last Wednesday night, after the greatest victory in club history, my brother and nephew and I lingered in the stands, watching the last of the players leave the pitch. Over the 10 years since TFC was born my nephew had grown from an exuberant 10-year-old to a world-weary university student. He bused home from Montreal for the occasion. We had watched the shape of the city change from our seats as the condo boom remade the downtown, but now the skyline was hidden behind the expanded east stand, a sign of the club's growth.

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I thought of my own favourite TFC memory, when the crowd, with nothing else to cheer for, urged a rogue squirrel that had found its way on to the field to dart across the goal line.

We walked home in the rain, not sure how to make sense of this feeling of utter happiness associated with TFC, and stopped at a pub packed with fans singing the name of goal-scoring hero Benoit Cheyrou to the tune of Hey Jude. We ran through the alphabet, naming a former TFC player whose name began with each letter and drinking a toast in his honour, working our way through a decade of memories.

A lot of strange things have happened in 2016. The Cubs won the World Series, Donald Trump was elected president. And TFC is playing in a Cup final.

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