TORONTO – It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: The margins between winning and losing in sports are so slim. Soccer is no different.
A free kick here. An offside call there. The complexion of a game can change in an instant, the final result decided on one play, one moment, one mistake.
Toronto FC knows this better than most. The memory of Stefan Frei’s incredible finger-tip save to rob Jozy Altidore of a sure goal in extra time of last year’s MLS Cup final is a haunting one for the Reds. Had Altidore scored, TFC more than likely would have lifted the trophy. Instead, Frei came up with the save of his career, and Seattle eventually won via a shootout.
Alex Bono’s remarkable save on forward Bradley Wright-Phillips in last Sunday’s playoff game between Toronto and the New York Red Bulls at BMO field was not on par with Frei’s in terms of athletic prowess. But like Frei’s stop on Altidore, it was a game changer. With Toronto down 1-0 at the time and with New York surging and bossing the contest, Bono’s save on Wright-Phillips was huge, allowing TFC to win the Eastern Conference semifinal on the away goals rule.
“Yes, we can say that [save was] the difference. That and maybe the [Sebastian] Giovinco free kick [from the first leg], but Bono had a great series. He looked confident coming off his line, making saves – good for him. For a young goalkeeper to show big like that, that was good for them,” New York coach Jesse Marsch admitted after Sunday’s match.
When told of Marsch’s comments, Bono, in his second year as an MLS goalkeeper, modestly downplayed the significance of the save, insisting his contribution was one of many made by TFC that led to their victory in the aggregate playoff.
“I don’t know about that, if it was the difference. There were a lot of players in the series who came up big for us in key moments, so I’m not quite so sure that was the pivotal play in the series. In every playoff, there’s going to be several plays that make or break a team. I was fortunate to make a play that kept us ahead at the time,” Bono told Sportsnet.
Make no mistake, had Wright-Phillips finished off his chance, we’d now be talking about TFC’s premature exit from the playoffs. Instead, Toronto prevailed and moved one step closer to reaching the MLS Cup final for a second consecutive season. Bono’s save, ultimately, was the difference – the slim margin between a second-round exit and a spot in the Eastern Conference final.
Toronto was rattled after an ill-tempered first half that saw the expulsion of Altidore and New York midfielder Sacha Kljestan following the now infamous tussle in the tunnel. Both teams were reduced to 10 men, but it was New York who took control of the game after the halftime break. Luck was also in the Red Bulls’ side, as they scored a fluky goal that deflected off Wright-Phillips and skipped past a helpless Bono in the 54th minute. The English striker didn’t know anything about it, but that didn’t matter. Suddenly, New York had a lifeline.
The Red Bulls continued to press, pinning TFC inside its half as it searched for a second goal. It looked like it was going to come in the 62nd minute. Felipe played a simple ball forward to the edge of the box where Daniel Royer deftly back-heeled it to Wright-Phillips, who took a touch as he slipped between two Toronto defenders and rushed towards goal. Bono, though, quickly sprung off his line, cutting down the angle to make a big save on Wright-Phillips.
“The ball came across the middle and there was a little flick from Royer, and it got to Wright-Phillips. He took a quick touch and then headed towards goal. I saw an opportunity to rush out and make myself big in hopes that I could stop him,” Bono recalled of how the play developed.
“Before Royer flicked it on, before it got to Wright-Phillips, I knew if he had a good touch he’d be in on goal. So, for me, it was about anticipating that he’d get a good touch, because most times he does. It was just about getting there and trying to make a play.”
Bono’s save helped Toronto stave off a New York team that had the momentum at a critical juncture in the match.
It was also an impressive piece of goalkeeper from Bono in light of the fact he didn’t have much to do in the game up until that point, and that he was beaten by Wright-Phillips’ deflected shot minutes earlier. Such moments, according to coach Greg Vanney, shows how Bono has grown and matured since pre-season when he displaced the veteran Clint Irwin as the Reds’ starting goalkeeper.
“It was a huge save. It was that little stretch, that little window where they were having the run of it, and they were able to get in-between us,” Vanney said this week.
“To stay focused in the moment, to get off his line that quick, to narrow the angle, to get himself in that position, having had not a not a lot to do, shows maturity. The ability to stay focused, the ability to stay connected to the game – it’s what we’ve seen in Alex and his growth since getting his opportunity.”
He later added: “In every playoff series, you’re going to need a save, you’re going to a need play that has to get made. … That moment was the one moment where the Red Bulls had a little bit of a sniff, and Alex made a great save.”