Flashback: Dichio goal opens TFC account

TORONTO — Carl Robinson still has one. So does Chris Pozniak. Jim Brennan thinks his may be at his parents’ house. Danny Dichio’s son saved him one.

Toronto FC’s first ever goal, scored by Dichio on May 12, 2007, was accompanied by a sea of Frisbee-like commemorative seat cushions hurled onto the field by jubilant fans like rice at a wedding.

Given away as part of what was dubbed BMO Field’s official opening weekend — it was actually home game No. 2 but the Chicago contest followed a Canada-Argentina under-20 friendly the night before and coincided with the CONCACAF congress — the round white cushions are collectors’ items today.

And one of the first happy memories for the MLS team. Although not for everyone.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever been killed by a seat cover but it’s certainly not pleasant getting hit by them,” Chicago coach Dave Sarachan said dryly after the game. “I think they’re going to have to rethink their marketing strategy a little bit.”

The white discs atop the green artificial turf made the BMO Field look like a giant game of Twister. But stadium officials were quick to clean them up and the game continued, with TFC players like Robinson, Poziak and Brennan leaving with souvenirs.

The MLS franchise has scored 417 regular-season and playoff goals since Dichio’s 24th-minute strike that afternoon in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire. Likely none has been cheered louder.

Toronto fans were desperate for something to celebrate. Road losses to Chivas USA, New England and Sporting Kansas City had been followed by a home defeat to Kansas City. All were shutouts.

The first ever score came from an Edson Buddle cross, raked into the goal by a falling Dichio at the edge of the six-yard box to end the expansion franchise’s 384-minute scoring drought.

“They still ask me about it and I still remember it very very well,” said the 42-year-old Dichio, who now coaches Toronto’s senior academy team. “Apart from getting hit by at least a hundred seat cushions, I go back to the sheer elation, the relief of when that goal went in.

“The pass from Edson Buddle going in slow motion to me at the near post. The ball bundling in. It wasn’t a sweet finish but it managed to go over the line and then just the relief from all the players, the supporters, the staff that day that we finally did it. It was a momentous occasion for us all, a very happy occasion for myself. But for us to get that goal and to get the win, our first ever win that day, I’ll take with me forever.”

The goal cemented Dichio’s place in TFC history. The hard-nosed English forward with the shaved head endeared himself further to Reds fans when he was sent off in the 43rd minute after a confrontation with Chicago ‘keeper Matt Pickens.

Hardcore fans still sing the praises of Dichio every home game in the 24th minute.

Ironically Dichio almost signed with Chicago rather than Toronto.

Dichio and his wife had three kids at the time — a fourth was born in Canada — and wanted a new start.

Looking to leave Preston North End, he was invited to pre-season by Chicago and had even gone to the Windy City to look for a house. Chicago wanted him but mistakenly thought he had a green card because his wife is American-born.

He fired his agent and went home to Manchester.

“When I got off the plane, I had two or three messages from (Toronto coach and GM) Mo Johnston,” said Dichio.

He called Johnston back and also got a call from the agent of Carl Robinson whom he knew.

“He said ‘Look they really want to get this done. If you’re interested, they can send you a contract over. No green card is needed.’ So we had no idea about Toronto. It was an expansion team. I had a look online at the stadium being built and it looked like a building site. So I was a little bit apprehensive in that sense. But we did some research on Toronto. We heard it was a fantastic city to live in. There was a big Italian community here, big English expat community here.”

Preston was reluctant to let him out of his contract early, but he wasn’t starting there and he made the case that this was a huge opportunity for his family. Eventually his English club relented.

“For us moving country with a young family, a lot of things ticked off for us with Canada in mind.”

He flew out two to three weeks later, spending the first week looking for schools and housing. Red tape meant he couldn’t play the first away games so he had to wait until the team came home.

He recalls ”a lot of pent-up frustration around the camp that ‘Are we ever going to get a win? Are we ever going to get a goal?’ I knew that it would come eventually. I didn’t know it was going to be me.

“We had done a lot of crossing and finishing all that week (in training). It was basically repetition, hitting the back of the net. For everyone involved, whether you were a defender or midfielder.”

Dichio retired after the 2009 season, the final chapter in a lengthy football career that included stints with his beloved Queens Park Rangers, Welling United, Barnet, Italy’s Sampdoria and Lecce, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Derby County, Millwall and Preston.

That first ever Toronto FC goal and win remain special memories.

“You’ll never play in an atmosphere like that again. Never. No matter how important a game will be … It was a blank canvas,” he said.

He still has his jersey from that day, signed by his teammates, in a frame. “My most prized possession.”

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