I’ve been in Toronto nearly three years now, and there are two things I still have yet to see.
One of those things is Niagara Falls.
And I’ll get there, eventually.
But first, there’s something else I want to see. That I need to see.
And that’s Toronto FC winning the MLS Cup.
We got pretty close last year, but getting close isn’t good enough. I’m from Italy and I played most of my career there. And in Italy we have this saying, It’s like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope.
Now, I don’t want to compare an MLS Cup with a visit to Vatican or anything, but….
I didn’t come all this way to not see Toronto to win a championship. That’s it.
I remember the first pitch I played on back in Turin as a kid. There was no grass, only dirt and chalked lines that would dust up anytime a boot or a tackle dragged across them. It was this hard ground, so if you fell, chances were that you were going to break something.
But that field, it was all we had. There was no big cinema, no shopping center in our town. Nothing. You could play football, or… you could play football. On this terrible field.
Except, I didn’t actually play football at first. I wasn’t like other Italian kids, who dreamed of playing in Serie A. I didn’t even watch it on TV all that much. I mostly just hung around with my mom. She worked at the little bar that my uncle owned.
But behind it was that pitch.
I used to pass by it all the time with my friends. Sometimes I’d watch boys play soccer on it. Some regional team in town. One day the local team was playing a seven-a-side match and happened to be missing a player. I was only six or seven years old at the time, and the boys on the team were a little bit older. I guess they were desperate as well because — since I was the only other one around — they threw me in.
And right away, I knew: Things were going to be different for me. Playing football … it made me happy. It was fun. It helped me make new friends.
So when I got home that day I told my father about the team and how I wanted to keep playing for it.
The next day, I went back. And the day after that.
I started out as a midfielder, I liked giving assists. But then I realized that the only thing I like better than assisting on a goal, was scoring one myself.
To me, goals were most important.
It’s how you win.
School sort of became an afterthought. I spent all of my time training with this team — San Giorgio Azzurri, it was called. I’d play anywhere I could, the pitch, parks around town, even in my family’s tiny apartment with my little brother, Giuseppe. It was a small place for the four of us. There was only one bedroom, and that was for my mom and dad, the bosses. Me and my brother, we had to sleep in the living room. During the day, we’d kick a football off the walls. It’d drive my mother crazy.
“Seba! You’ve knocked down another picture!”
We didn’t have much. We lived only 15 miles from Stadio delle Alpi, but never got tickets to go watch Juventus. We definitely couldn’t afford to buy any kits. I remember my father, who was an ironworker, had to save up for a whole year to buy me my first boots.
Kits, boots, whatever, I didn’t care. Being on the field was the only thing that mattered.
After a year or so of playing with my team, a Juventus scout invited me to join the club’s academy. It probably sounds crazy, but that’s just how fast it happens. One day you’re playing for your small local team, and then a club spots you and that’s it. At least that was it for me. One day a guy showed up and talked to me and my dad, and the next day I was part of the Juve academy.
Because I lived near the academy, I stayed at my parents’ apartment. Every morning my dad would drop me off at the academy in his little Renault 5. Then he’d go back home, pick up my mom and drop her off at the bar for work. At the end of the day, he’d pick up Mom and bring her home so she could start making dinner while he picked me up from training. I swear, he put so many miles on those little Renaults that he would have to get a new car every two years.
My dad wasn’t a football dad, you know? He was an AC Milan fan in that he came from Milan, and it was the top team around back then. But he never played or watched football on the television. So for him, he was happy with me playing at Juventus as long as I was happy playing at Juventus.
But for a while, I wasn’t happy. When I was probably about 15 or 16 I wasn’t getting any playing time. And on most of the rides home, I’d just sit in his car and cry.
One day, he stopped the car. “Seba,” he said,“I’m not going to bring you back tomorrow.”
I looked back at him, wiping my tears, “Why!”
“Because I’m not taking you here to just cry.”
I thought for a moment. O.K. I’m not going to cry. I’m just going to work hard.
Which, honestly, was all that was expected at the club. No tears. No nothing. There’s this mentality at Juventus. It’s pretty simple….
They teach you respect, and to win with respect. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing.
That mindset was instilled in me from the time I first arrived at Juve.
And when I was 17 years old, I was brought into the coach’s office to sign my first official contract with Juventus. Since I was underage, my dad came with me.
I also needed my dad to come with me to sign one other thing — the paperwork for a new apartment. It was one of the first things I bought for my family. A room for everyone.
I remember the first time I stepped onto the pitch at the stadium. It wasn’t anything like the dirt pitch back home. I was playing next to Del Piero, I was assisting Trezeguet.
I was proud that we worked our way back into Serie A that first season. I don’t think I would’ve gotten the opportunity to play as much if we hadn’t been in Serie B. But promotion wasn’t something that was spoken about a lot in the changing room — or that the younger players had been part of getting Juventus back up top.
Like I said, there’s only one thing that matters at Juventus. And it doesn’t matter how it gets done.
And for me, like always, all that mattered was that I was on the pitch.
But after a few years, I knew getting more time on the pitch with Juve wasn’t going to happen. I went on a couple of loans and with my contract at Juve coming to an end, I started thinking about moving to MLS. Toronto had been the club to reach out to me and the conversation went pretty fast. So from there, there was only one team I considered: Toronto FC. Within two or three days we had an agreement.
I’d be coming to play for Toronto.
The first time I arrived to Toronto was in February 2015. And when my plane landed … well … let’s just say the cold is what I remember most from that day. That and the hundreds of fans who came to see me at the airport.
And I’ve learned two things since: 1) that a Canada Goose jacket will always keep me warm (the team gave me one the day I landed), and 2) that Toronto FC fans will always be behind us.
I don’t think I knew how beautiful this city was going to be. It’s weird. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve played for other clubs in other cities — and it’s not easy moving your life, your career. It’s not easy coming to a new place and having fans accept you.
But in Toronto, I found a home right away.
More important, though, is the fact that we are doing something that I think no one expected us to do. Before I got here, I thought this could be a team that could do something special. I’m not sure why. But as soon as I met the other guys, it was like everybody seemed to have the same mentality, the same objective. Everybody wanted to do just one thing.
And we did. In 2015, my first season here, we made the postseason for the first time in team history. But I think we got ahead of ourselves after that. After we clinched our playoff spot, we celebrated little too much. We lost our last two league games. And then we were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs to Montreal.
See, there’s this other part of the mindset at Juventus that I think we needed to learn at Toronto.
You win today, you stop celebrating today and you move forward.
That loss against Montreal though, it was an emotional one for me. I wanted to prove something to the team, to the city. I wanted to show why I was here and what we could do. But everybody learned from that match. It was sort of the start of a journey for our team.
We thought we had things figured out in 2016. We got through Montreal in the playoffs and made it to the final.
But, that final. I mean, what can you really say about it? If I’m being honest, I had this feeling a couple of days before. I don’t know, there was just something in the back of my mind telling me that things weren’t going to go our way. I spoke to a couple of my family members and friends about it. And you try to shake it off by game day. We had our opportunities, but we just couldn’t finish.
I couldn’t finish.
I could ask what would have happened if I hadn’t had to be subbed out because I was cramping. I could ask what would’ve happened if I had done this or that. But I think it’s the same whether you win or lose … you have to move forward. You have to keep going.
So we’ve made the little changes here and there that we needed to make. That’s the thing — I really think that we’re so close. That there were only little pieces that were missing.
One of those pieces was Victor Vázquez, who joined us this season. He’s someone who can really help us win. He’s leading the league in assists. When he’s on the field, we’re a better team. It’s as simple as that.
And we were already pretty good — a fact that comes down to two guys.
There’s Michael Bradley. He’s our leader on the field and in the changing room. And after all that time he spent playing in Rome, his Italian’s pretty good, too. (Maybe even better than mine!) But more important, he’s the one who is giving guys advice and pulling us together before a match.
And there’s Jozy. He’s my guy. It’s funny, my first year in MLS nobody knew my game, so I could score all these goals when guys would leave me open in the box. The second year, I guess people caught on. I was covered a little more. But that left guys like Jozy open to step up — and he did. I don’t know, I just feel this natural connection with him on the field. We don’t have long chats before a game. We just go out there and know where the other guy is going be.
I guess I’m not really chatty with anyone, really. Maybe it’s a language thing. But I also think that there are guys who talk in the dressing room. But then there are guys who let what they do on the field do the talking. Del Piero was a lot like that.
And when I’m not talking, I’m listening. I’m listening to our fans. I’ll be honest — I still don’t understand a lot of the chants. (I’m learning.) But I do know when I hear my name being sung by the crowd at BMO.
I hear it. And I feel it.
Call our season a comeback story, a redemption story, whatever you want. We’ve been at the top of the table all year. But we’re not satisfied.
And after each win, we stop celebrating and we move on.
And we won’t stop until we see it: A championship in Toronto.
And then — after I see us lift the MLS Cup — I know what I’m going to see next.
Plus, I hear the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is a lot nicer.