Michael Bradley kisses what his his and his Toronto FC teammates’ object of desire. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
TORONTO — After coming so tantalizingly close to securing the 2016 MLS Cup title, Toronto FC’s mission this past year came down to two words:
Obsession and redemption.
The obsession literally lasted a year as the team was forced to endure the pain of coming so close on Dec. 10, 2016.
The final act of redemption took a tad over 90 minutes at BMO Field Saturday night. In probably the most dominating performance by a team in the 22-year history of the MLS Cup final, Toronto FC grabbed its object of desire, the Philip K. Anschutz Trophy.
Team captain Michael Bradley, who proudly hoisted the silverware over his head to celebrate the Canadian club’s achievement in front of 30,000-plus spectators, explained what the road to the Major League Soccer championship meant to himself and his teammates.
“Lifting this trophy has been an obsession for the last 364 days. Not just for me, but for every single guy on our team,” he said after the Reds’ convincing 2-0 triumph over Seattle Sounders FC. “Every coach, every part of the staff, from the second when [Roman] Torres scored the winning penalty last year, to get ourselves back here, to give ourselves another crack at it has been honestly, there’s no other word for it than just obsession. It’s hard to describe to the people on the outside what it’s been like to live that every day.”
Instead of letting it eat away at the team, Toronto FC ate just about every comer for breakfast for several months, although the mountain seemed so steep at the beginning of the team’s quest.
“I can sit here and try to explain to you guys for the next two hours what it’s like to lose a final on penalties like we did last year and have to wake up the next morning and feel like your chance at redemption might as well be 50 years away, honestly,” Bradley said.
That obsession was transformed into the greatest MLS regular season as Toronto FC rolled to a 20-5-9 record and 69 points. The team lost its over-the-top momentum during the final weeks of the season and was never quite the same juggernaut it was during the playoffs. So, the team went out and demonstrated why is was a championship side — it grinded out wins. Perhaps they weren’t as impressive as the regular-season run, but those W’s all counted the same.
“To every single guy to have been part of this road, this journey for the last year it’s incredible,” Bradley said. “To cap it off tonight, the way that we did, to play the way that we did with everything on the line, with all of the supposed pressure on our shoulders, I’m so … proud of them.”
On Saturday night, he didn’t score any of the goals — Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez did the damage — although Bradley started the scoring sequence on Altidore’s game-winner with a quick clearance from out of the back. Mostly, the former MetroStar worked behind the scenes, doing the dirty work, digging the ball out of trouble, winning duels and making life miserable for Seattle’s Clint Dempsey and company.
What Bradley did may not necessarily not make headlines, but it certainly wasn’t lost on Toronto head coach Greg Vanney, who decided to go with two instead of his usual three center backs. That put more responsibility on Bradley.
“Michael’s been phenomenal all year,” he said. “He should have been in the MVP discussion and obviously in the Best XI discussion. But tonight especially, his overall awareness of his positioning and where he needed to be. Obviously, we had one less center back tonight. So, his relationship with the two center backs and his ability to find the right moments to step and press things with the group and find the right moments to drop in to the back three to allow our fullbacks to get and get pressure to their fullbacks was enormous.
“When he’s a man on a mission, he can cover ground like nobody and today he was on it for sure.”
As the captain of two squads — Bradley skippers the U.S. national team as well — he shoulders much responsibility.
When Bradley returned to the team from the 2-1 debacle of a loss in Trinidad & Tobago in the aftermath of the greatest international failure in U.S. soccer history in the past 30 years, he made a promise not to let his disappointment get in the way of what is his day job.
“Especially for me as captain, I have a huge responsibility that nothing carries over,” he said. “I give everything I have in a given moment for this team. When it’s time to switch gears, I switch gears.
“When I got back from Trinidad, I said to our media here, it would not be fair to any person here, our teammates, our coaches, our fans any part of the club if we brought the anger, frustration or heartbreak over because this team this year has been nothing like I have ever been a part of just in terms of a group of guys with the coaches, with the staff, everybody. We were so one single-minded.”
And so obsessed.