The promise and agony of Toronto FC's CONCACAF Champions League run

Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and Alex Bono, right, sit dejectedly on the pitch after loosing to Chivas in a penalty shootout in the CONCACAF Champions League final. (AP)
Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and Alex Bono, right, sit dejectedly on the pitch after loosing to Chivas in a penalty shootout in the CONCACAF Champions League final. (AP)

There were tears. And blank stares. Scarlet noses and drenched cheeks. Ghostly, expressionless faces. The faces of agony. Of bereft agony. The agony of having given everything and oh so nearly gotten everything, only to be left with nothing, helpless, an island of despondence amid a sea of jubilation.

Joyous songs echoed around Estadio Akron late into the Guadalajara night. Streamers flew. Chivas players bounced and embraced and saluted fans. And all Toronto FC could do was stand there and watch. Watch the celebrations that could have been theirs. That they, in all likelihood, felt should have been theirs.

TFC came ever so close on Wednesday night to doing something no MLS team had ever done before. It came one wayward volley, or one fingertip away from winning the CONCACAF Champions League. It overcame a first-leg deficit, won in Mexico, and had history within reach.

Then Michael Bradley sailed a penalty over the bar. History sailed away with it, off into the distance, the road back to where TFC found itself this month so excruciatingly long.

There is absolutely no shame in winning at Chivas, then falling on penalties, 3-3 on aggregate over two legs, 4-2 in the shootout. And there is no denying the legitimacy nor immensity of what TFC had accomplished. It had upended two of the best teams in Mexico, Tigres and Club America, in the quarterfinals and semis. It had brandished its quality in first legs at home and showed resilience in second legs on the road. The run to the precipice, closer to glory than its MLS brethren had ever before come, will forever maintain a special place in TFC lore.

And for many, it will stand up as proof. Proof that MLS is gaining ground on Liga MX, the kings of the continent. Proof that the league is improving, expanding in quantity but also growing in quality. The New York Red Bulls and their narrow semifinal defeat support that point.

But there is often a tendency to overstate that connection between the league and its standard-bearer. There is also a tendency to overestimate the longevity of sporting excellence. And that, precisely, is what makes TFC’s loss so agonizing.

Toronto was and is the best team in the league’s history, and what it has built – the expensive roster supported by strong foundational infrastructure – is as sustainable as anything in league history. But sustaining success year after year in MLS, under a somewhat restrictive salary cap, is hard. As TFC manager Greg Vanney told Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus last week, “Unlike a lot of MLS teams in the past, the same group of players has been together the last 2-3 years, and have been through a lot of big games and big scenarios together as a group. That’s not really common in CONCACAF.”

There is no telling when that group could begin to splinter. There is no telling when TFC’s dominance could wane. There is a real chance that the peak has already come and gone. And there is no telling when another MLS team will reach it. The league was closer to CONCACAF preeminence than ever on Wednesday night. But that doesn’t mean it’s closer on Thursday morning than it was at this time last year, or the year before. Despite the pride, and the plaudits that TFC will rightly receive, there is no escaping the thought that this was a missed opportunity.

Perhaps that was going through the head of Bradley as he sat, mouth agape, stunned, on the side of the Estadio Akron pitch after the final whistle. Perhaps it infiltrated the heads of his teammates as they watched victorious counterparts bound around the field for what felt like an eternity. They’ll have taken out their mental pens and inked the moment into their memories, just as they did after a 2016 MLS Cup final shootout loss to Seattle. Asked after Wednesday’s match whether this loss could spur the Reds on another run next year, just as the Seattle loss spurred them to a 2017 MLS titleVanney said, “it has to.”

But there are no guarantees. No guarantees that greatness will survive another year. There is hope and optimism, inspired by Toronto’s memorable, valiant campaign. But no guarantees those feelings will prove justified.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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