Toronto FC head into MLS playoffs with a little more than just winning at stake

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Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco reacts to the crowd after he scored his second goal against the Columbus Crew during the first half of an MLS soccer game Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Toronto. (Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press via AP)
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At least within the tight and unique confines of Major League Soccer, things are on the uptick for Toronto FC.

Full house? Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Union, TFC hosts its first playoff game, so it’s safe to check that box.

Superstar player? Sebastian Giovinco, the league’s MVP last year in his first MLS season, worked a full shift on the weekend for the second time after seven weeks away, and made an impact:

Supporting cast? Behind Giovinco they have American internationals Michael Bradley (with rumours of a Serie A move ahead) and Jozy Altidore, having found a nice vein of goal-scoring form the second half of the season. Behind those two top-dollar players they have assembled a defence that’s light years ahead of last year’s shot-with-holes bunch, and an overall group that affords head coach Greg Vanney som tactical versatility.

Championship contender? Here’s the riddle, though we really just answered that with Giovinco’s status, after time out with injury showed their lack of an imaginative, cutting edge in his absence. At upwards of 8-to-1 in the online bookmakers’ odds, they look like a live longshot for the Dec. 10 MLS Cup final. The Montreal Impact, Canada’s other team left in this MLS championship chase, are more lightly regarded at 25-1 or higher.

Montreal has its own internal issues to contend with, and offer a comparative to illustrate how fleeting success can be in the MLS. A year ago, the Impact and their midseason designated-player signing Didier Drogba welcomed TFC to Saputo Stadium and administered a 3-0 beating that was as emphatic as it was predictable. Now Drogba and the Impact are on the outs, and they’ll travel to Washington, D.C., on Thursday to try and extend their season. (UPDATE: Drogba reported not travelling to Washington.)

All of this points to a less tangible prize at stake this playoff season that would be far more long-lasting - respect, particularly in the country’s biggest city. TFC has spent nearly 10 years in fruitless pursuit of the fall spotlight in Toronto. Either through their own incompetence or, more recently, deep shade from a pair of Blue Jays’ playoff runs (and now Wednesday night, direct competition from the Raptors’ season opener after their most successful season ever) they’ve been relegated to afterthought status, their television ratings barely registering.

In some ways, TFC and soccer are in the same spot the Raptors and basketball were a generation ago, with an incandescent player in Vince Carter and a following that seemed to vanish the further away you got from the arena. Global soccer has always had a huge following, but the game's profile nationally has grown immensely over that same period thanks mainly to the women’s programme - with a 2026 men’s World Cup bid apparently in play there’s a further great leap forward possible over the next decade.

A lot still needs to be taken care of, not the least of which is MLS’s basic structure, including its roster quotas that do no favours to Canadian players, but call this playoff season the small picture that could point the way to something bigger: in a rebuilt stadium, with one special talent on a team that finally appears to be built with solidity at top and bottom, TFC might finally get a place of its own in Canada’s most crowded sports landscape.

 

 

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