TORONTO — Why can’t Toronto FC play like this every week?
Forced to play a man short for 74 minutes, TFC showed tremendous character and plenty of attacking invention in earning a 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact Wednesday to advance to the final of the Amway Canadian Championship.
Reggie Lambe and Ryan Johnson scored for the Reds, who were reduced to 10 men when defender Richard Eckersley was expelled.
The victory before 15, 016 spectators at BMO Field clinched the semifinal series in the Reds’ favour after the teams battled to a 0-0 stalemate last week in Montreal. Toronto advances to the two-legged final where it will meet the Vancouver Whitecaps on May 16 and 23.
Maybe desperation is the ultimate motivator, because this Toronto side bore no resemblance to the team that has lost eight straight games to open the Major League Soccer season, and is the only club in the 19-team league without a single point.
The Reds bunkered down in the opener in Montreal, putting all 11 players behind the ball and played not to lose. Toronto employed similar defensive tactics in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to visiting DC United, a result that saw TFC establish a new league record for the worst ever start to an MLS campaign.
Coach Aron Winter promised a more attacking brand of soccer in the buildup to Wednesday, and the Dutchman delivered. The Reds looked lively going forward and showed great composure in defence, the team’s Achilles’ heel.
In earning this morale-boosting victory, Winter relieved some of the pressure resting on his slim shoulders. A loss to Montreal and a premature exit from a tournament Toronto has won for the past three years could have been the tipping point for MLSE, the club’s owners.
But by advancing to the finals, Winter has probably bought himself a bit more time. It’s hard to imagine MLSE making a coaching switch on the back of this win. This was an inspired performance from the Reds, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can build upon it in MLS play.
As to the original question — why can’t TFC play like this all the time? — Winter maintained that his team has, contrary to what critics think.
“In only those (last) two games we were a little bit careful, but today we played like normal like always,” the Dutchman said
That’s debatable, but the coach seems to have regained the backing of this players. Johnson openly criticised Winter’s tactics in the aftermath of the DC game, while others voiced similar concerns. After Wednesday’s contest Johnson maintained he believes Winter is the right man for the job.
“He’s a coach that has our backs, and we have his. He’s a great person. It’s tough to see him struggle (and) the players struggle over all of these weeks … I’ve always had confidence in him” Johnson said.
In a bit of a surprise, Toronto captain Torsten Frings was in the starting lineup. The German midfielder injured his shoulder against DC and didn’t practise with the team on Tuesday, leading many to believe he wouldn’t even be named to the 18-man game day roster.
TFC swarmed the Impact from the opening kickoff, and were rewarded for their attacking intent in the second minute. Joao Plata made a driving run into the box, and the ball eventually fell to Reggie Lambe, whose shot took a deflection and skipped past Montreal goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
Things turned sour for Toronto 14 minutes later when Eckersley was expelled for a high challenge on Montreal’s Sinisa Ubiparipovic. Eckersley’s challenge looked harmless enough, but referee David Gantar showed the Englishman a red card after one his assistants raised his flag.
Winter was at a loss as to why the red card was issued, and Eckersley left the stadium after the game before he could offer an explanation to reporters.
The numerical disadvantage didn’t deter Toronto. The Reds continued to attack, with Johnson forcing Ricketts to come up with a strong save from close range. The Jamaican made the most of his second chance, burying a shot from the edge of the six-yard box in the 38th minute after the Impact failed to clear the ball from their penalty area off a corner kick.
Tempers boiled over in first-half injury time, and players had to be separated right in front of the team benches following a bit of a melee on the sidelines.
Montreal came out strong to start the second half, and pinned the Reds deep inside their half. Davy Arnaud should have scored from deep inside the box in the 53rd minute, but Toronto goalkeeper Milos Kocic made a marvellous save to thwart the Montreal captain.
The Impact continued to threaten, with Bernardo Corradi being denied by Kocic, Felipe Martins curling a gorgeous free kick just by the post, and Justin Mapp hitting the crossbar from distance with Kocic out of position.
Montreal coach Jesse Marsch bemoaned his side’s complacent performance, calling TFC the better team, and that the Impact were outplayed and outcompeted.
“I saw 11 guys that weren’t ready for a real game. If you show up to play like that, I don’t care who it is … you’re gonna get your ass whipped. That’s what happened to us tonight.” Marsch said.
NOTES: The Impact has never beaten TFC in Canadian Championship play, going 0-6-2 since the inaugural tournament in 2008… Montreal returns to MLS action on Saturday at home to the L.A. Galaxy. Toronto’s next league game is May 19 when it visits DC United… Toronto was missing forward Danny Koevermans (groin strain), while Montreal was without defender Zarek Valentin (calf injury). Winter said Koevermans will be available for the first leg of the Amway final next Wednesday… TFC’s Nick Soolsma came on as second half substitute, making his first appearance since April 7 after battling a nagging hamstring injury…