Toronto FC are in their first-ever MLS Cup (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX) and it feels like a long-time coming. Toronto joined MLS in 2007 and only made their first playoffs last season after years of trying to improve, but this year they are one game from winning the whole thing after a largely dominant regular season. A lot of things had to happen for them to get there, and here is a look back at how it all went down.
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New ambition and big money investments to match
One of the biggest reasons that Toronto FC are into the final can be traced back to years ago. Tim Leiweke took over Toronto FC's ownership group and Tim Bezbatchenko became general manager – and both were willing to make some big moves, with the most notable early move being the acquisition of Michael Bradley from Roma for a reported $10 million transfer fee. Bradley has been a core piece of the 2016 Toronto FC squad. Others included striker Jermain Defoe, who was signed from Tottenham.
From there, big investments continued, with players like Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco eventually coming in as high-priced Designated Players. Dollar-for-dollar and player-for-player, Toronto FC's roster turned into the best the club has ever had. Last year, the club made it the playoffs for the first time, the first sign of those investments paying off, before a heartbreaking loss to their rival, the Montreal Impact. But it laid the groundwork for their spectacular 2016 run, which may still end up in an MLS Cup.
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Greg Vanney steered everything on track
It can't be easy becoming the ninth coach of a team in just eight seasons, which is what Vanney walked into at TFC last year. There, of course, was a reason for it: Toronto FC kept struggling and it didn't matter that they had thrown money around to boost their roster. Improving the roster was one piece, but making it work was the other part, and that's where Vanney stepped in.
What Vanney has done over the past two years has clearly involved big-picture changes, like improving the team's culture and chemistry, to day-to-day decisions, like getting his tactics and game management right. His favored 3-5-2 formation isn't too common in MLS, but it's worked right with his personnel, giving Toronto FC the edge to be an aggressive, smothering team. His substitutions are often the exact ones that are needed, like when Benoit Cheyrou scored two minutes after replacing Sebastian Giovinco in the Eastern Conference final, securing TFC's spot in the MLS Cup. Vanney has had the right touch all year, and it's pushed TFC to the final.
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Jozy Altidore came back better than ever
It looked like 2016 wasn't going to be a great year for Altidore. Injuries were in his way as the season began, and when he did play, he struggled to be a factor. By the time he suffered yet another hamstring injury over the summer, it looked like 20-year-old Jordan Hamilton could potentially replace him on Toronto FC – the youngster scored four goals in eight games over his absence.
But Altidore returned to the team with renewed vigor, playing some of the best soccer of his career. He didn't even score his first goal this season until July 31, almost two-thirds of the way through the season, but finished with 10 regular season goals and five assists. His excellent form and scoring spree continued into the playoffs, where he scored in all of Toronto's playoff matches, a new record in MLS.
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Sebastian Giovinco had another special season
Don't let the MVP award fool you: The best player in MLS this year was Giovinco and he carried Toronto FC on his shoulders for much of the year. When Altidore wasn't scoring goals, Giovinco was, and that was crucial in keeping TFC afloat. Giovinco did get hurt as playoffs got close, but Toronto won just once in those five games, proving again how important he was. That he stayed healthy in and of itself kept TFC in the hunt.
The Italian international contributed 32 goals for Toronto this year, 17 goals scored and another 15 on assists. That made him the most productive player in the league. Of course, that wasn't unexpected – last season he contributed to 38 goals. But that he stayed close to his 2015 level of production was vital for TFC.
The defense finally figured it out
Toronto FC had long been a laughingstock, failing to make the playoffs year after year. This year marked their first ever playoff win, and it came in part because the defense came together. They had been a sieve at the back for much of their existence, but no team in the Eastern Conference gave up fewer goals this season. It didn't matter that Clint Irwin got hurt and Alex Bono had to step in at goalkeeper, only for Irwin to come back. They protected the goal well enough with good defending (even if it went MIA in the conference final).