As we look back on 2016, even though Toronto never won a championship, it must ultimately be considered a very successful year. The Toronto Maple Leaf fans finally have hope after a couple of decades of futility. The Toronto Blue Jays and the Raptors went to the Eastern Conference Final and Toronto FC also had a glorious playoff run reaching the MLS Cup Finals. If you were to ask which of these teams was the most successful, I don’t think many people would argue with TFC as they came the closest to bringing a North American Championship back to Toronto. But which team do you think provided their fans with the greatest excitement and which team are you most proud of?
It’s tough to say that a team like the Toronto Blue Jays who were one of the top four teams in MLB, caused the most frustration this year around the GTA, but it would be true. Part of this year’s disappointment comes from the fact that they had such a memorable run last year and reached the ALCS Championship in 2015. What that meant for this year then was that the expectations of Blue Jays fans were higher. So even though they reached the ALCS once again which is quite a feat, it didn’t quite feel the same. It was more than just the loss itself, but other factors throughout 2016 that left a bitter taste in our mouth. During spring training there was the contract controversies of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Throughout the year we had major slumps including falling off the top of the AL East to squeak through as a Wild Card. Don’t get me wrong though, Encarnacion’s home run to win the WC game and that rematch versus the Texas Rangers series was thrilling and will live in Blue Jay lore for quite some time. But fans knew we had quite a number of holes and Cleveland easily exposed them as they headed to the World Series and we didn’t. This lead to an even more disappointing offseason where not only have management failed to fill those holes they created more. Fans are still bewildered as to how EE is no longer a Blue Jay despite having offered him the best contract.
Forget about making the playoffs, the Maple Leafs finished in last place in 2016 but it still feels like they had a better year than the Blue Jays. That’s the one benefit of having a fan base with no expectations for your team. In fact, the only thing that the Leafs did win was the Auston Matthews draft lottery. Fans may not have had any expectations to end 2016, but be wary of next year for that will certainly change. This new, young Leaf team with 6-8 rookies playing every game has already proved, they are an exciting bunch to watch. They have issues holding on to leads and make many rookie mistakes as we expect, but they are fast, talented and eager.. The opening game of the season when Matthews scored 4 goals instantly became the most memorable game in over 25 years. The only one that comes close is that Game 7 collapse in Boston. There is new hope in Leafland and management has so far shown the patience to let it grow organically rather than to forcibly speed up the process. The franchise does have a free pass this year as again, expectations are low so it makes no difference whether or not they make the playoffs. But watch those expectations rise for next year folks and let’s see if the buds can continue to improve.
TFC was literally, a fingertip away from being the MLS Champions. From a team that had never won a playoff game before to being a penalty kick away in bringing Toronto a championship, the success of this season is undeniable. The trio of designated players in Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco are not only all world class, but they are in the prime of their careers and will lead this team for a few more years. Their home and home series with cross-country rivals the Montreal Impact was some of the most exciting, if not the most exciting soccer that has been played in the history of both MLS and North America. The lead changes, over time, combining for 12 goals, the rain and the nearly 100,000 spectators did so much to promote soccer that even those snobbish football fans stopped to take notice. TFC took a giant step in the right direction this year to challenge the other three for media coverage and attention. It is still one of many steps needed, but just as the Raptors, it will take time.
Speaking of those dinosaurs, I have to say they not only ended 2016 season in the highest fashion possible, but they opened this season as well as or even better than anticipated. We all know the Raptors had never won a best-of-seven playoff series. After the Wizards dismantled us in 2015, there was a lot of trepidation facing the Pacers even though the Raptors broke a record for most wins in their history. But a nail biting victory in Game 7 and another Game 7 victory against the Miami Heat laid any previous ghosts to rest. With everyone giving them no chance against the Cleveland Cavs, the eventual NBA Champs, even winning 2 games was considered a huge success. Fast forward to a fairly quiet off-season and with the teams in the East improving, the expectations to reach the Conference Finals may have dipped a bit. But the Raptors have a better record at the Christmas break than they did last year and they don’t even have a full team as their main acquisition Jared Sullinger hasn’t played a single minute yet due to injury. Most of the players like Terrence Ross, Norman Powell and even veterans Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (with a max deal) have improved over last year. This team works hard every night and has earned our respect and admiration and yet they keep on surprising us with their high level of compete and their great achievements. I don’t think there can be any doubt of how well this team played and continues to play. Toronto has a team that not only looks like it will contend for quite some time but one that will continue to make us proud as they represent our city.
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