MONTREAL—The maturation of Toronto FC continues.
The Reds put in a professional and gritty performance on Wednesday night, earning a 0-0 draw with the Montreal Impact before 18,964 fans at Stade Saputo in the second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals.
This result, combined with a 4-2 victory at home last week, means Toronto won the two-game series on aggregate to advance to the tournament final later this month.
This wasn’t an especially entertaining outing by TFC, but it didn’t have to be. The Reds came to Montreal looking to lock things down, and protect their two-goal advantage.
That’s exactly what they did. There was no reason for them to open things up and go for the jugular. Instead, TFC played an almost perfect game, giving away very little, and keeping their shape and remaining defensively organized to scratch out a draw. Boring to watch? Yes. Effective and smart? No question.
Just as important as Wednesday’s result was the way they earned it and what it means in the wider context of Toronto’s season. The Reds continue to build upon their growing reputation as a team that can grind it out with the best of them, and one that no longer needs to attack with reckless abandon to get the better of opponents. With each game, the once-naive Reds are growing in maturity.
“What’s great about it is that we were team that had a hard time getting [clean sheets] last year. We talked about coming into this season that in order to contend for championships we needed to put zeros on the board from a defensive standpoint. Today we protected our lead and we locked it down away from home, so from that perspective I’m pleased,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said.
Vanney made two changes from last week’s game, inserting defender Drew Moor and midfielder Will Johnson into the starting lineup, at the expense of Nick Hagglund and Marky Delgado. Forward Sebastian Giovonco, who missed the first leg with an adductor injury, started on the bench before coming on as a late substitute.
Vanney’s counterpart Mauro Biello also made changes, most notably fielding midfielder Harry Shipp, and defenders Victor Cabrera and Ambroise Oyongo in the starting lineup. Also, Wandrille Lefevre shifted from central defence to left fullback to accommodate Cabrera.
Toronto was without captain Michael Bradley (U.S. national team duty) and forward Jozy Altidore (hamstring injury). Montreal was missing midfielders Ignacio Piatti (hand surgery) and Patrice Bernier (suspension).
The game started at a frenetic pace, with both sides moving forward with great speed, before settling into comfortable rhythm. Montreal was limp in attack, only coming alive for the final 10 minutes of the opening half, but even then it never threatened to score. TFC did a great job of stifling the Impact — defender Ashtone Morgan routinely thwarted Didier Drogba — and held the hosts to two shots on target, neither one of them particularly dangerous.
It went from bad to worse for Montreal in the 60th minute when midfielder Lucas Ontivero was red carded after he butted heads with Johnson. It was the last thing Montreal needed — to go down a man with half an hour left while still requiring two goals.
Johnson told reporters he exchanged words with Ontivero on the play inside the penalty area, and that the Argentine responded by head-butting him in the nose.
“I told him he went down too easily, and he didn’t like that,” Johnson said.
The game was over at that point. Montreal tried in vain to press forward even with 10 men, only to smack into a stalwart Toronto defence each time.
“I didn’t think they’d scored unless they got a penalty. It felt comfortable,” Johnson said. “We were solid in our shape, we protected that lead, and I think we deserved to move on. Over the two legs we were the better team.”
NOTES: Toronto will face the Vancouver Whitecaps for the championship. The two-legged final will be played during the weeks of June 21 and June 28… TFC’s next MLS game is June 18 vs. LA Galaxy at home. The Impact visit the Columbus Crew the same day… Last year, Vancouver knocked off Montreal in the Canadian final to win its first Voyageurs Cup… The cup itself was originally funded and awarded by the Voyageurs, a Canadian soccer supporters group founded in 1996. Since 2008, the Canadian Soccer Association has presented the Voyageurs Cup to the tournament champion… The Canadian tournament winner will also qualify for the group stage of the 2017-18 CONCACAF Champions League as Canada’s lone representative in the continental competition.