TORONTO – After Jozy Altidore scored the go-ahead goal in the 84th minute against New York City FC on Sunday night, the Toronto FC star headed to the southwest corner flag at BMO Field — arms pumping, his face etched with joy.
Captain Michael Bradley was the first player to chase him down, motioning for his fellow players to join him. Within seconds, the burly Altidore had been swallowed up by teammates in a ball of happy humanity.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney calls such celebrations “shared experiences” — moments he has encouraged his players to enjoy. And they have done so gleefully in the MLS playoffs, sharing the moments with fans who have suffered through many bad times to get to the good.
Holding a 2-0 lead going into Sunday’s return leg against New York City FC, Toronto has a clear edge in the Eastern Conference semifinal. New York City needs to keep Toronto off the scoresheet and score at least twice to get back into it. If Toronto scores an away goal, NYCFC will have to score four goals to advance.
And Toronto is on a roll. Vanney’s team has lost just three times in its last 21 games (11-3-7) dating back to June 29.
The goals are getting bigger, as reflected by the celebrations.
But there is no rocking the baby, sucking a thumb, ripping off shirts or somersaults. Toronto FC goes for a massive group hug, often heading to the stands to get fans involved.
In a sport where goals are hard to come by — Toronto ranked seventh in MLS by scoring 1.5 goals a game — celebrating a score comes naturally. But TFC has looked to make each a family affair.
“That’s Greg and the team leaders and the new players saying ‘Hey, let’s celebrate together,'” said GM Tim Bezbatchenko. “Each goal is a moment for the team to connect with the fans.”
Suddenly “All for one” is more than just the club’s slogan.
Celebrating together was a topic of conversation during the pre-season, to connect the team and the fans, said Vanney.
“When we do things, we do them together, whatever that is,” he said.
That includes defenders racing down the pitch to congratulate the scorer. Vanney took particular joy in seeing the substitutes join in the Altidore goal celebration Sunday.
“I think it shows the group really enjoys each other, off the field, onfield,” he said of the celebrations. “You can’t really fake that stuff.”
“This team is growing,” Altidore said after Sunday’s game. “We’re becoming closer after every game, after every moment like this.”
That unity is perhaps more challenging in MLS than other league given the North American circuit is a league of haves and have-nots, with the designated player rule ensuring that a few players get a bumper payday.
And yet in the Altidore celebratory scrum, there is a smiling Sebastian Giovinco — the US$7.115 million man — trying to connect with others including Nick Hagglund, a 24-year-old defender who is pulling down $63,000. At his current salary, it would take Hagglund 113 years to earn what Giovinco makes this season.
While Giovinco had a hand in the Altidore goal, it was Hagglund’s ball into the box that set the wheels in motion for Tosaint Ricketts’ insurance score.
Making goals — and celebrating them — is open to one and all in a Toronto shirt.
“Show the emotion. It’s OK to just let go and let the moment take you for a few minutes,” said Bezbatchenko.
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