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Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and teammates celebrate with the Eastern Conference trophy on Wednesday. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and teammates celebrate with the Eastern Conference trophy on Wednesday. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Toronto FC one win from a championship after beating Impact Add to ...

Ten years ago, they were new and bad.

After they’d got the hang of things, they became much more terrible.

Years passed and the only thing that remained the same were the results. Five years ago, one of their own players called them “the worst team in the world.” Last year, they were still blowing it, just in even more painful spots.

Today, Toronto FC – the awkward, unloved stepchild of North American professional sport – stands one win from a championship.

I suppose that from now on when people tell you that anything is possible, you’ll be forced to agree. You’ve seen the proof.

Toronto beat the Montreal Impact 5-2 in the second leg of the Major League Soccer conference finals on Wednesday night. It wasn’t pretty, but it was remarkable. Another thing they’ve waited a decade for – a classic game.

“We all had an idea that it could could be a special night of atmosphere and emotion,” said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. “In some ways, ten years of emotion.”

Toronto will now play the Seattle Sounders for a title at BMO Field on December 10th.

It was awfully physical stuff.

“There are no free lay-ups,” Bradley said flatly afterward.

He may have been referring to the tone-setting event of the first quarter-hour – a flying Jozy Altidore shoulder that nearly decapitated Montreal’s Hernan Bernadello.

But mostly it was frantic, an endless series of egregious errors, scrappy goals and twists in the mathematical road. There was only one very specific score that would have led to added extra time. So, of course, there was added extra time.

Benoit Cheyrou came off the bench. He hadn’t scored all year. So, of course, he put his first touch – a horizontal header – in for the winning goal.

It was that sort of night.

Had Montreal won here, it would have in part been a victory for thrift. The Impact put their team together on the relative cheap. Their highest-paid player is poster-boy Didier Drogba (The description is not meant kindly. That’s all Drogba can do any more: be on posters.) What Toronto proved on Wednesday is another one of those small deaths of progressivism we’ve witnessed recently – money really does make the difference.

Each of their extravagantly paid superstars – Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Altidore – had a telling hand in the win. Altidore in particular was the bull Toronto had always hoped he could be.

Here’s even more shocking news – you’d have to think Toronto are the favourite now. The Sounders are a good, if profoundly unspectacular team. Like everyone from the U.S northwest, we must presume they are weak when the weather gets hold of them. The long-range forecast suggests the title game will be played in more seasonable conditions.

A win in that game would vindicate the trouble Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment have gone to put TFC in the same strata as the Leafs and Raptors – the hugely expensive players; the hugely expensive stadium renos; the hugely expensive cost to their pride that was ten years of utter futility.

Amazingly, this could be the first top-tier team to win any sort of championship under the MLSE banner.

Poetically, the man most responsible for turning it around – former MLSE president Tim Leiweke – was on-hand Wednesday night to see it pay off. Leiweke liked to predict that, of all his children, TFC would come out on top first.

That’s the Toronto side of it. Montreal’s end is ash, for now at least. They’ve come a long way in a few years, though I suppose that won’t make them feel any better about a contest they had in their grasp several times, and let slip.

“Feeling the emotions of a game like that, it stays with you,” said Impact coach Mauro Biello, sounding marvellously French.

In a larger context, it was a great Canadian evening. We don’t get many of those when it’s men on the field.

When MLS first came to Canada, they made a great deal about growing the national game. It was the sort of thing that sounded nice and required no real action. Aside from enjoying the conversion rate on their expansion fee profits, the league’s made precious little effort to do anything for Canada beyond allowing them to hang out the shingle.

You got a small sense of the cross-cultural divide during a pre-game press conference to announce changes to the league’s domestic player rules. Put simplistically, young Canadian talent will now have an easier path into MLS.

A photo-op that should have been all hands-across-the-border devolved into a snippy lecture from league commissioner Don Garber when he was pressed on the details.

“Everybody talks about this like it’s a social issue,” Garber barked. “It’s not a social issue.”

I suppose that translates as, ‘Why do I have to keep telling you this? We like you even though you’re Canadian.’

There are twenty teams in MLS, but the three in Canada form its most effective pillar. For the most part, they have always been some combination of new and/or bad, but their fanbases are amongst the most devoted. While the league continues to fap about with over-the-hill Europeans in their profit centres, Canadian teams have managed to (mostly) resist that temptation. At the moment, each one of them is built to perform within their own particular budget constraints. Not just perform, but thrive.

A moment like Wednesday night – a record crowd on hand at the ‘National Soccer Stadium’ – was overdue. The supporters provided the noise. The game provided the reason to keep it up. The better team won, but it was close. It was the sort of contest that left you panting for more.

“I can’t imagine that after the experience and emotions of (watching this game), there aren’t a lot of new soccer fans – both for MLS and for Canadian soccer,” said coach Greg Vanney.

For the first time, the heavily contrived Toronto-Montreal soccer rivalry seems real. That’s a huge win for Canada.

For the first time in MLS history, a non-American team will contest in the final game for a title.

That would be an impressive achievement. But on some level, the national finish line was Wednesday – two Canadian teams proving over two legs that the sport has completely settled up north. It’s all good.

MLS likes to nod toward Canada whenever they go through their roll of key supporters. Half the time, you suspect they’re just saying it to be inclusive.

On Wednesday, they were made to understand why they bother.

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