Sunday, 11 December 2016

“Welcome to Canada, eh you hoser!”

I had the priviledge of seeing the 2016 MLS Cup Final between TFC and the Seattle Sounders live at BMO Stadium on Saturday, December 10, 2016. The game kicked off at 8 pm eastern, the temperature was a balmy -2 and the stadium atmosphere was electric. The fly-over at the end of the Canadian National Anthem set the stage for an exciting evening in which at times, the event took over for the quality of the game being played. TFC got off to a great start with an opening scoring chance in the 4th minute, followed by several glorious chances to score as the match played out and into overtime. The two greatest chances to score being a header from Altidore which Stefan Frei made a remarkable save off of and a glaring miss from inside the penalty area by Ricketts (both of these coming in the overtime portion of the game). The set-up for the crossed ball by Ricketts was remarkable, as he was able to get past Torres (one of the rare occasions) and float a delicious ball into the box with the awareness for a streaking Altidore- as the ball floated in the direction of the TFC striker he took several powerful strides before leaping into the air and at his maximum height attempting to head the ball down and into the goal Stefan Frei was minding. The ball was just an inch or two high for Altidore to achieve full power on the header (which would have likely been the game changer) and floated off the top of his head toward to top left corner of the goal (top left from the goalkeeper perspective) for us all to watch in amazement as Stefan Frei made a world class save with the bottom left hand to deflect the ball out and around the post for a corner kick.

It was sensational, seeing this remarkable moment LIVE!

The Sounders went on to win the game and played an excellent game defensively, both as a team, and as individuals.

The last time I sat with Stefan Frei in BMO was back in the 2012, when we would sit in the player’s box and discuss the “good old days” he had originally experienced with TFC. 2012 was a difficult season for both the team and Stefan Frei. At the start of the season we ventured to Florida for the pre-season training camp to play in the Disney Classic.

My first call of duty as the ‘Performane Analyst” was to sit-up in a high tower and video tape the training sessions in the Florida sun 4-5 hours/day. It took about three days for me to get sun-stroke and suffer the consequences of being exposed to the sun at an elevation of about 100 feet above the training grounds.

The pre-season training also included matches against some of the MLS teams also visiting the area to participate in the event. In fact, we played a local college team in a friendly or two along the way also.

It was then that I started to admire Stefan Frei, as he had spent time in the off-season training with Liverpool FC and came into the training camp extremely sharp and motivated.

Interestingly, when I think about this motivating forces, I think he shares a common thread with Erin McLeod, another great goalkeeper in her time- who also prided herself by being both physically and mentally prepared for each and every movement they made as an investment to become the best they could be. Stefan saved our bacon time and time again in the preseason games against local College Teams and/or MLS teams while we were in Florida.

Upon our return to Canada and the ensuing start of the MLS Season we were due to play the LA Galaxy in the quarter-final of the CONCACAF Champions League, which was a hold-over from the competition TFC had played in the prior season. If I am not mistaken, Stefan played the first leg at home in Toronto when we defeated the Galaxy in front of 45,000 when the game was played in the Skydome. The second leg was played by Milos Kosic, when the team qualified for the semi-final of the CONCACAF Champions League by defeating the LA Galaxy in a two game series.

To this day, the team celebration was legendary and will be one of the many highlights I experienced working for TFC. The coaches had decided to split the games between the goalkeepers to give each an opportunity to prove themselves, which, in hindsight, seemed rather odd, as Stefan Frei had proved himself worthy time and time again during the preseason. Importantly, he soldiered on, which is an invaluable lesson to all up and coming goalkeepers. When things don’t go your way you have choices to make, whether you agree or disagree with the decisions of your coach you have to find ways to keep focused and move forwards. Stefan continued to shine in training, working his butt off to earn the number one spot with the team for the 2012 MLS Season.

Sadly, during one of the final sessions in preparation for the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League Stefan suffered a broken leg which would disrupt his campaign and severely affect the outcome to the start of his season. I did not see the situation unfold, as I was in the stadium at the time, only picked up on the commotion once the training staff had been able to support him where he lay injured on the stadium field in which we were training.

The timing was horrible, here he was, performing at or near his peak for the start of the season, working his butt off to earn and keep the starting spot and engaged in a debate about who should or should not be the number one starting goalkeeper for the team. He deserved so much better, it was heart breaking to see all of his hard work in the off season not be rewarded.  In the ensuing months we would spend time together in the players box on game days at BMO. I remember one conversation in which we were sitting above the crowd, watching the team play in the middle of the CNE. The stadium was more than half empty, as you could see the Canadian Flag painted on the bleachers in white because there were so few people in the crowd. The CNE appeared in the background which presented a “Carnival Atmosphere” fitting to the season, as TFC spiraled downward once again. 

The coaches who hired me to work as the Performance Analyst in January of 2012 (Aron Winter and Bob DeKlerk)  were let go and replaced part way through the season. The replacement coach Paul Mariner would then be fired at the end of that season. So would Ryan Nelson who replaced Paul for the 2013 season. A pattern was well established. Stefan and I sat watching the team prepare to play a likely meaningless game, if they were not already eliminated from the play-offs, they were very close. He told me that when he first started playing for TFC the stadium would be filled with passionate fans 60 minutes before the game. Cheering. Singing and celebrating their LOVE and PRIDE for TFC. It was a very low moment for the team, who knows, perhaps for the franchise.

Stefan Frei would earn his way back into the team the following season and experience a broken nose in the first days of his comeback, once again, setting him back in her personal quest for the starting position with TFC.

I am so very grateful to return to BMO for the 2016 MLS Cup Final between TFC and the Seattle Sounders. Thanks to a former colleague and special friend, Stuart Neely we were able to secure two tickets to the game. I flew out the day before spending my time with Joe Nucifora and his family. It was a remarkable atmosphere in the stadium on game day, which, now residing on Denman Island and living a rural lifestyle I rarely experience. The energy of a stadium on “game day” is electric and overwhelming. Seeing and feeling the intensity of the game, being a part of the energy and enthusiasm of the hometown crowd and seeing familiar faces is a wonderful and rare opportunity. The seats we enjoyed allowed me access to the same hallways I had walked when I worked with the team. I came across Jason Bent, who is now the TFC2 Head Coach and former colleague at TFC. We had a brief chat and acknowledged how times had changed.

“It took Toronto FC 10 seasons, nine coaches, 324 regular-season and six playoff games to finally get to the championship game. Some 3.49 million fans went through the turnstiles before the 36,045 lucky ones Saturday night.”

I simply cannot imagine the number of players the team had chewed through in the 10 seasons as well. It was an honor to be able to sit with my friend Joe Nucifora for the game. We first met 15+ years ago when I was working the Canadian Soccer Association the National Teams Goalkeeper Coach when he attended a GK Clinic put on by Ken McGuinness from Delta Sports at Etobikoe Stadium (the very same venue I had played for the Nova Scotia Clippers in the CSL from my playing days). Joe was a goalkeeper enthusiast who also worked for “Joe’s Hot Sauce” at the time if I am not mistaken. We have been friends ever since. I am fairly certain this would be not the first nor the last time he invited me back to his house for dinner to sample some of his Mom’s home cooking.

If there is one things I learned over the years from my professional travels it was never to turn down an offer to experience a home cooked Italian meal. I had several families adopt me along the way, starting with Mama Maria when I played in Winnipeg in the CSL. She took care of myself and Henry Nelson for the season. To this day I still recall a family dinner in which we were invited and she had made from scratch home-made lasagna noodles, the sauce (with her own tomatoes) and of course the main course to follow. The slice of lasagna covered more than my plate was so delicious. I have to thank the Coppetti family also located in Toronto, actually North York for all the years they fed me an introduced me to “spiducci!” The Pagliaro family. The Bellisimo family, who while playing for the North York Rockets took us in like extended family, myself, Kevin Wasden and often Nic Dasovic to fill our bellies and welcome us into their families.

Joe and I were seated in section 124A, we were seated in the wheelchair section as he has Stage Four Brain Cancer. We are the exact same age. It is awful to see a close friend and colleague fight this terrible sickness, but a priveledge to be able to share this time and special event together. Several weeks prior to the final I had decided to fly out and pay him a visit. I had heard that he might be in a wheelchair. I had known from a conversation during the summer that he preferred to text rather than talk, as talking was more of a challenge that texting. I knew he was sick, but I did not know how sick until my first visit. Stage Four Brain Cancer is not good. But he is fighting with an incredibly positive attitude and not letting on that there is anything negative that would be of any concern to him. This is who he is. Loyal. Compassionate and Selfless.

Our first visit was spent watching all four quarter-final games in the MLS play-offs in one day on TV, after which I promised to return if TFC made the final (which they did) and so off I went. Thanks to the generosity of Stuart Neely, whom we had both known in different ways through the years we were able to secure seats the final which sold out in 3-minutes. 

Joe’s cousin Sal arranged a wheelchair specific taxi to the game which took us right up to the stadium and picked us up right on front immediately after. Sol has a humongous heart and domineering personality- the moment he walked into the door before the game you could hear his thunderous roar as he delivered a newer more comfortable wheelchair for Joe to use for the game. 

When we took our seats in the stadium for the game we were able to watch the Seattle Sounder warm-up. It was time to take some photos to send to my compadres in Port Angeles Washington who I knew would be cheering for the Sounders. 

As we were watching the teams warm-up Robyn Gayle crossed our path, a current member of the Canadian Women’s National Team who we both knew. Joe had worked with her in the OSA Provincial Teams Program and I had met Robin in the Canadian Women’s National Youth Team Program many years ago. She took the time to say hello, ask how were doing and introduce us to her nephew who was 6-years old that she took to the game. Robin has always been a person with a warm heart and lovely smile. 

To this day, she is exactly the same, taking time to say hello and make time for us two “old guys!” 

As the game wore on the crowd and atmosphere were fantastic. TFC had several chances to score, but were thwarted on multiple occasions. 

Seattle played an excellent defensive game and adjusted to playing away from home in a spectacular fashion. TFC carried the majority of the play, often through Michael Bradley who dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball and initiate their attack with his swift and accurate passing. Michael Bradley is also in incredibly hard working defensive midfielder. Giovinco was drawing fouls and pressure from the Sounders all over the attacking portion of the pitch. 

The referee was in control, but not influencing the game in a negative way, leaving the game to be decided by the player’s o the pitch. Tactically both teams made changes to impact the match in the latter stages of both 90 minutes of regulation time, and eventually into the 120 minutes including the overtime periods. It came down to penalties and you had to favor Stefan Frei. Stefan had looked sharp and motivated in the warm-up. He was fired up to play and had soft hands. This was one thing we both noticed when we sat down to enjoy the show. He was kept on his toes and tested several times during the match. Clint Irwin, the TFC goalkeeper hardly touched the ball in 120 minutes in play.

"The Sounders’ zero shots on target and three total shots were both MLS Cup records."

Going into the penalty shoot-out a friend, former colleague and former Seattle Sounder Ian Bridge texted me to ask who I favored in the shoot-out. Hands down, it was going to be Stefan Frei. As much as I wanted TFC to win, for the city of Toronto, for the organization, for the simple fact that I could strut out next summer during the annual Denman Island 7-Aside Showdown when the Damn Yankees come to town in my bright red TFC toque, scarf, pullover, shorts, socks, shoes and blanket. However, this was not to be. The sixth and final shooter for the Reds Justin Morrow hit an awkward ball that hit the crossbar in the center of the goal setting up the Sounders Sixth Shooter Torres, or “Star-Man” to seal the deal.

All game long there were several somewhat intoxicated TFC fans behind us who kept calling him “Star-Man” every time he touched the ball (apparently it was in reference to a local Rapper who had released a hit single in recent months) which was rather annoying. Well,  “Star-Man” delivered. His sixth and final shot won the 2016 MLS Cup for the Seattle Sounders and simply silenced the crowd and emptied the stadium at the exact same time. It is very rare that 36,000 + screaming fans go dead quiet and vacate the premises is such a fashion. However, I do recall TFC emptying BC Place earlier this season when they snuck a last minute victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps to declare the Amway Cup for the 2016 Season. It was priceless, 4-minutes to go, Vancouver was doing everything they could to delay the game and hold on for the win, when out of nowhere in a desperate effort at the final play of the game TFC scored! That was also one stadium that emptied on impact leaving nobody to see TFC celebrate their victory!

Oddly, we were is Seattle a couple of weeks attending a Showcase Event (where the Sounders train) with the 2000-1999 Riptide Girls Team. The only player I saw the entire weekend from the Sounders at the training facility while the tournament was being played was the Panamanian Central Defender. Perhaps this was an omen! Never in a million years did I dream of it ending this way. TFC endured 120 minutes of play at home in front of a sea of red only to lose in the final by penalty shots. Not many of us did. Congrats to the Sounders. You successfully employed a well-executed game plan and did what you had to when it mattered most. Congrats to Stefan Frei for the MVP Award for the game, I simply cannot imagine how powerful that moment was for you. Congrats to my homies in Port Angeles, I will gladly buy your dinners, provide you with the jerseys and be your whipping boy for time immoral.

However, as we left the stadium in the wheelchair designed taxi I came to realize how powerful and lasting these moments were going to be. I could not hide how hungry I was (after not eating since lunch- it was now 11:30 pm) and asked that we forewarn Mama Nooch that we were coming home hungry. We had a 30-minute drive in the taxi from the stadium to the house, which was just enough time for Joe’s 80- year old mom to fry up those delicious thin breaded pork chops in time for our arrival. The game was over, we were disappointed in the loss but grateful for the time together. We shared Mama Nooch’s pork chops, peas and wine as we savored the opportunity to enjoy one another’s company. The game has always been special that way, bringing together family and friends who share a common passion.

Joe and I hugged this morning to say good-bye, hoping to see each other again. I have no words to describe my feelings. I had a heavy heart and tears in my eyes.

Will we see one another again?

In my heart I have enjoyed the friendship of a loyal, loving kind man. In these recent two trips I have come to learn the same about his family. I hope to come back and share more memories regardless of circumstance. I am grateful for the generosity you have all offered along the way.

All of you.

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