It was the kind of performance that years from now ought to be recalled with fondness. Toronto FC trailed 2-1 from the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against C.D. Guadalajara. And with just about every center-back on its roster injured, the Reds delivered a performance for the ages, beating Chivas 2-1 to level the series on aggregate.
Alas, that will not be all that is remembered. Chivas ended up prevailing in the ensuing penalty shootout 4-2 to claim continental supremacy for the first time in 56 years. So while Toronto performed courageously and heroically, there is a hole that remains, a sense of a quest that remains unfulfilled.
The performance was personified by Toronto captain Michael Bradley. With Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta all out injured, it was left to Bradley to fill in at center-back alongside Gregory van der Wiel. When Orbelin Pineda scored in the 19th minute to put Chivas ahead 1-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate, it looked like too big of an ask for Bradley individually and TFC collectively.
But then Jozy Altidore pulled a goal back in the 25th minute, after tenacious work from Nico Hasler, and Toronto grew into the match. Bradley seemed to be everywhere, whether with his play on the ball or his on-field leadership.
When Sebastian Giovinco scored just a minute before halftime to level the series on aggregate, it seemed Toronto was well-positioned to finish the job. But in the second half, the injuries and lack of fitness in some TFC players began to tell. Chivas looked the fitter and stronger team as the game approached 90 minutes. Yet it was Toronto that had the last best chance when Giovinco's cross seemed perfectly teed up for Marky Delgado, only for the U.S. international to sky his volley over the bar.
And so, penalties beckoned. Jonathan Osorio (the tournament's joint-top scorer alongside Giovinco) was conspicuous for his miss but Bradley even more so. Osorio's shot in Round 2 hit the bar and with Chivas converting every one of its four attempts, it was left to Bradley to keep Toronto's CCL dreams alive. He failed to even hit the target, curling it wide, and TFC's pursuit of CCL glory was ended.
It's the latest instance of the dichotomy that has characterized Bradley's career -- especially at the club level -- where long periods of impressive play have been undone by high-profile moments of failure. Penalty shootouts have been especially problematic. In the 2016 MLS Cup final, Bradley was arguably the best player on the field in the 120 minutes of play against the Seattle Sounders only to see his weakly taken penalty in the shootout easily saved by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
A similar argument could be made on Wednesday night given Bradley's relative unfamiliarity with the center-back position. Sure, he's often counted on to initiate the Toronto attack out of the back, so that aspect wasn't likely to change too much. But keeping the back-line organized, all while making sure that his play was solid, is much tougher than it sounds.
Yet on a night when Bradley did so much right, the enduring image will be of his penalty miss even if Chivas was likely to prevail anyway at that stage.
Is it fair? No, but it is reality, even though the mistakes Toronto made in the preceding 180 minutes were what ultimately caused its downfall, from the early goal in the first leg to Alex Bono's misjudgment on the second goal in leg one to Delgado's miss in leg two.
Bradley's international career has also witnessed triumph and disaster. The World Cup qualifying failure last October in Trinidad has fallen mostly on Bradley, serving to overshadow a decade-plus of reliable service. His time with the U.S. hasn't been immune from penalty shootout miscues, either. He missed in the third-place game of the 2015 Gold Cup.
That Bradley has failed to convert in penalty shootouts so often creates another contrast. On the one hand, his willingness to take responsibility in such moments is laudable. But at a certain point he has to admit that shootouts aren't his strong suit and the task is better handled by others.
Of course, Bradley is by no means the only player to find the penalty spot to be his personal house of horrors. In fact, you could make a pretty strong starting XI out of players that have missed in high-profile penalty shootouts, from Roberto Baggio to David Beckham to Lionel Messi. But such is the fate of players who are the heart, soul and face of their team. Bradley has certainly been that for club and country and this disappointment will have to sit side by side with his achievements, including last year's treble with TFC.
That Toronto came agonizingly close to winning the Champions League means that MLS will have to rue its failures in the tournament for another year as well. There has been talk about whether the proverbial gap between MLS and Liga MX has closed, and points can be made to buttress both sides of the argument. That Chivas currently sits in 17th place in Liga MX's Clausura standings, yet defeated three of the better teams in MLS on its way to the title, could be looked at as proof that no progress at all has been made.
On the other, MLS went 3-3 in its matchups with Liga MX foes. Those three wins equal the total from the last 16 tournaments combined. The three wins also came against two teams (Tigres and Club America) that have clinched spots in the Clausura playoffs, and another in Tijuana which is likely to reach the postseason.
Yet as impressive as Toronto's performances have been this year, winning the tournament is the most powerful argument of all. And even after a night when Toronto acquitted itself as well as any MLS team ever has in the tournament, it's a goal that remains elusive.