With a liberating strike of Jozy Altidore’s left foot, he not only redeemed a difficult year in which he and the United States men’s national team had failed to reach the World Cup, but also ended 11 years of Toronto FC’s suffering.
For eight straight seasons, TFC had been among the biggest spenders and most popular teams in the league. Yet it had failed to even make the playoffs back in a version of Major League Soccer where it was harder to miss the postseason than to make it.
In a rematch of last year’s final, the Reds once again dominated the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. Only this time, they managed to breach Stefan Frei’s goal and avoid a scoreless game running to penalty kicks — which Seattle won in 2016, in spite of not putting a single shot on goal for 120 minutes. In injury time, Victor Vazquez added a second goal to make it 2-0.
But there was more to Altidore’s strike, which gave him seven playoff goals over the last two postseasons. It put the most expensively assembled team in the league at the top of the heap, finally. Toronto’s $22.5 million payroll in guaranteed salary at the start of the season was almost $5 million more than the second-most expensive team, New York City FC, which shed Frank Lampard’s towering salary after last year.
It was more than twice Seattle’s payroll, which placed seventh in the league.
For its expenditure – Toronto also expanded attendance and added a roof to BMO Field recently – the Reds compiled the best regular season record in MLS history, yielding the Supporters’ Shield, and the Canadian Championship in 2017. A rare treble.
For its Canadian Dollars, the once-moribund Torontonians bought themselves Altidore, captain Michael Bradley – who was imperious for a second straight MLS Cup final – and Sebastian Giovinco, the attacking spark plug who underwhelmed yet gave the winning assist with a tape-measured through-ball.
Michael Bradley completed 92% of his passes (65-71). He led all players with five tackles, shared the lead with four interceptions, and was third on TFC with six clearances. #MLSCup pic.twitter.com/QSkc8K6e0n
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) December 9, 2017
The spine of this expertly-crafted team has made it an Eastern Conference power year after year. And it has demonstrated that the added cost of acquiring that kind of star power and dominance will pay off. This realization has value beyond Toronto’s success.
After the LA Galaxy established a dynasty from 2011 through 2014 by spending big and winning three MLS titles, it was reaffirmed on Saturday that the money is likely to bubble to the top in this league. For a very long time, that wasn’t true. It took years for a team with a DP on its roster to even win the league.
Now, something of an arms race has broken out. Whether you approach it the way Toronto has, with established stars, or if you’ve opted for lesser-known commodities like the last two champions — the Sounders and the Portland Timbers, to say nothing of the stunning newcomers Atlanta United — it’s getting harder and harder to contend in MLS without spending real money.
There are exceptions, of course. FC Dallas won the Supporters Shield in 2016 with a small payroll, just as the New York Red Bulls did the year before. But both have faded since. Perhaps anecdotally, success seems to be trending towards the rich. That’s a good thing for the league.
The parity canard seems to have been debunked by now. There is no demonstrable benefit to giving every team an equal opportunity. And you could argue that it’s hurt the league more than it’s helped, stymieing excellence and ambition. Some truly outstanding MLS teams had to be deconstructed because they were jumping too far ahead of their competitors.
Eager owners, in other words, were punished for their success. Likewise, big markets were made to behave and spend like small ones just to be fair to them. For a league that’s decidedly on the ascent, that’s not helpful. Rather than artificially keep the field even, it does more good to let the moneyed and the savvy put pressure on the poor and spendthrift. That’s how the success of a few teams can elevate them all.
Toronto has sent the clear message that in order to compete with them, you may well have to spend like them. Or to outsmart them, if you can’t afford to get into the arms race. Especially after MLS announced Friday that it was allowing teams to add another $2.8 million to their payrolls in 2018 through the complicated “targeted allocation money” mechanism. With a previous TAM injection of $1.2 million, that just about doubles the salary cap of some $4 million – which already doesn’t include most of three DPs’ salaries.
That is all to say that TFC’s $22.5 million payroll – which brings it squarely into the neighborhood of top clubs in respected second-tier leagues globally – will likely have to become the norm for any team hoping to play for an MLS Cup title.
On a night where Toronto FC finally got its big win, that’s also a victory for the ambitious league.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.