Toronto FC ticked off another box Saturday night in a remarkable MLS campaign, defeating the New York Red Bulls 4-2 to win the Supporters' Shield that goes to the team with the best regular-season record.
With two games remaining, Toronto (19-5-8) has an unassailable nine-point lead atop the standings.
In a league where the hardware that really matters — the MLS Cup — goes to the playoff winner, taking first prize in the regular season means a lesser trophy and US$130,000 deposited to the TFC players' bonus pool.
But in a sport where the league title decides the champion in many countries, finishing first in the standings means something. For Toronto FC players, it is another goal achieved — following the Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champions.
It is also a step on the road to a bigger prize.
Toronto finished third in the East — and fifth overall — last season, but made it all the way to the MLS Cup final only to lose to Seattle in a penalty shootout at BMO Field.
The Toronto players celebrated in front of the fans Saturday, even if the Shield trophy itself was not on hand.
Once back in the dressing room, a few beers were consumed. But it was more a matter of job done than a party. Striker Jozy Altidore had a ginger ale at his locker while captain Michael Bradley munched on a slice of pizza.
"While we're celebrating, it's been a semi-muted celebration because we know we've got two of the three (trophies) and the third one is the biggest one we're after," coach Greg Vanney said after notching his 50th regular-season victory at the Toronto helm.
For Bradley, the Shield makes good on a team goal to be a consistent threat all season. For a man who came to a loser when he signed with Toronto in January 2014, it is also further proof that the once sad-sack franchise really is a winner.
Most important of all, it sets Toronto up for the playoffs.
"What we've done is we've guaranteed that the last game we play this season will be in this stadium," said Bradley. "Whether that's MLS Cup or whether that's the second leg of a playoff series, our season will end in this stadium.
"And I think every single one of us likes our chances of playing here in this stadium in front of our fans with our season on the line."
Toronto has lost just once this season at BMO Field. Other than that defeat (to Montreal) and the 2016 MLS Cup final, its last loss on home turf was a year ago Sunday (a 1-0 loss to D.C. United on Oct. 1, 2016).
TFC has already set club single-season records for wins (19), total points (65), goals scored (71), home wins (12) and home points (39). It clinched a playoff berth with six weeks remaining, matching the fastest post-season qualification by any club since 2006.
It is also the first Canadian team to win the Supporters' Shield.
Victor Vazquez's 80th-minute penalty proved to the winner in Saturday's wild win. Wingback Justin Morrow sealed the deal in stoppage time with his third goal of the night before a sellout crowd of 28,979.
Morrow is the second defender in MLS history to score a hat trick, following Jose Vasquez of the L.A. Galaxy in 1997. It marked only the fifth hat trick in TFC history, with the other four coming from Sebastian Giovinco.
Toronto players mobbed goalkeeper Alex Bono on the field when the final whistle blew. They then posed for a photo in front of the south stand fans.
It looked like the Toronto celebrations would have to wait when Daniel Royer tied it at 2-2 with a 77th-minute penalty after defender Drew Moor scythed down New York striker Gonzalo Veron in the box. But referee Allen Chapman pointed to the spot again minutes later when Aaron Long was caught all over Jozy Altidore in the box.
Veron scored for the third straight game for the Red Bulls. New York 'keeper Luis Robles made an amazing one-handed save in the 59th minute to somehow parry a Tosaint Ricketts headed deflection of a shot over the bar.
After an even opening with few chances, the offences opened up with three goals in seven minutes with Toronto leading 2-1 at the half.
The game marked the return of Altidore after a three-game absence due to a hamstring issue. Giovinco (quadriceps strain) sat out a fourth straight game.
Star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and playmaker Sacha Kljestan came off the Red Bulls bench in the 59th and 64th minutes, respectively.
Toronto was coming off back-to-back losses — to Montreal and New England — for the first time this season. New York (12-12-7) is now winless in eight games (0-3-5) since a victory Aug. 12 over visiting Orlando.
"I think team effort was amazing again," said Royer. "It's insane what this team puts into every single game. The energy and the will is just fantastic. As I've said in all the other interviews before, it doesn't really pay off but if we continue like that it'll come and i think we can be proud of our performance."
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