TORONTO – Advantage, Toronto FC.
TFC left it late on Sunday evening, but they eventually pulled it out courtesy of a late Jozy Altidore goal to earn a dramatic 2-0 win over New York City FC before 28,220 spectators at BMO Field.
Altidore’s goal in the 84th minute, his second of the Major League Soccer playoffs, settled a tense and physical affair between the two teams that featured six yellow cards (five by New York) and plenty of bad blood. Canadian Tosaint Ricketts, who had a hand in setting up Altidore’s winner after coming on as a substitute, scored in injury time to seal the deal for the home side.
With the win, Toronto goes into the second leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with a clear advantage, needing only a draw in next Sunday’s return match in New York to advance. Even a 1-0 loss by TFC would be enough for them to win the aggregate playoff.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney diplomatically downplayed his team’s edge when asked to look ahead to next week’s second leg.
“It’s a good score line. Nothing means anything until we finish this off in New York. We’re half way there; we have a lot more still to do,” Vanney stated.
Atidore and Ricketts scored the goals, but Michael Bradley was the man of the match, running himself ragged as he bossed the midfield in breaking up plays, winning tackles, and stripping NYCFC players of possession.
Vanney lauded Bradley for doing an incredible job of covering a lot of ground to snuff out danger, calling the performance one of the best he’s seen from his captain during his tenure in Toronto.
“In a game like today where the opposition is looking for things in transition and we’ve committed a lot of [players] to pressing, sometimes his role isn’t all about the stuff that happens going forward,” Vanney explained.
“He was very good with the ball in getting us out of things. But what I thought was really special about his performance tonight was how quickly he was getting to [close down NYCFC players], to double team. … Michael was there in a flash to be the second defender to help support our back line.”
This was not an easy win for TFC. At times, they were battered and bruised by NYCFC, and had several decisions go against them—to say nothing of the fact that it took them 84 minutes to finally break down the visitors.
The Reds, though, showed great patience, and even more important, great maturity in keeping their composure to earn a big result—the biggest in franchise history.
“To stay calm, to stick to our guns, to play the way we wanted to play from the beginning of the game to the 70th and 80th minute when it looked bleak, is a sign of a team that is growing,” Altidore offered.
For the third consecutive match, Vanney used the exact same starting line-up, marking the first time this year he’s done that.
Notably, Frank Lampard was on the bench for NYCFC, while fellow designated player Andrea Pirlo (calf strain) was not on the 18-man roster. David Villa started for the visitors. Mysteriously, backup goalkeeper Eirik Johansen received the nod for the second straight time ahead of veteran Josh Saunders, who before last week’s regular season finale started every game for New York this campaign.
The first half was very chippy, with several late tackles and plenty of fouls off the ball. Tensions boiled over when Villa kicked TFC’s Armando Cooper in the back of the leg after the two collided. As the Panamanian lay prone on the ground, Villa gave him an earful for going down too easily. A horde of Cooper’s teammates immediately rushed in and swarmed around the Spaniard before the ref stepped in to separate everybody.
Villa wasn’t cautioned on the play, but the league’s disciplinary committee could review the play and has the option of suspending him for next week’s second leg.
“I have a ton of respect for David Villa. He’s a phenomenal player; one of the best in this league. But I think there are instances in a game, that regardless of who you are, when you make choices like that where a player is defenseless and you take a whack at him from behind, on any other day and in any other league that player sees a suspension,” Vanney offered.
He later added: “For me it was pretty blatant.”
The lone scoring chances of the opening half fell to Sebastian Giovinco, who beat the offside trap and broke in on Johansen after latching onto a high Altidore pass, only to see the New York goalkeeper make a kick save. Then just before the half, Johansen parried away Giovinco’s knuckle ball of a free kick that deflected off the wall.
The second half was just as tense, with NYCFC doubling down on its physical brand of soccer to slow down Toronto’s buzzing attack. It didn’t quite work, as TFC continued to press, with Giovinco quickly turning and unleashing a powerful shot from 25 yards out that flashed just over the crossbar.
Soon after a pair of controversial decisions enraged Vanney on the sidelines. New York’s Mikey Lopez brought down Steven Beitashour from behind with a rash tackle, earning only a yellow, when a red was in order. Then Altidore was bearhugged by NYCFC’s Maxime Chanot inside the box while TFC swarmed Johansen’s net—a clear penalty, but referee Silviu Petrescu waived play on.
It looked like a stalemate was in the cards when Altidore struck late for the Reds. New York failed to clear its lines after a high ball was played into the box. The ball pinballed around the penalty area before falling to Altidore who blasted it into the roof of the net.
A wild celebration ensued, with Altidore jumping over the boards surrounding the field and celebrating with fans in the stands as he was mobbed by his teammates.
Ricketts padded Toronto’s lead in injury time, scoring from his knees on a rebound after Johansen stopped his original shot.
Like they did after Wednesday’s first-round playoff win over the Philadelphia Union, TFC players congregated in front of the south end of BMO Field, where the club’s most vocal supporters sit, and banged on a massive drum while leading the fans in the “Viking Clap.”
“For me, it was far and away the greatest night in the stadium, in terms of the fans, the crowd and the energy,” Vanney enthused.
NOTES: Toronto was winless (with three draws) in all five previous games against NYCFC since the team from the Big Apple joined MLS in 2015… The return match in this two-game series is scheduled for Nov. 6 at Yankee Stadium… If the aggregate score is tied after 180 minutes of regulation, away goals will serve as the tiebreaker. If the series is still tied after that, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety, followed by penalty kicks, if necessary. The away goals tiebreaker will not apply in extra time of the second leg.
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