Altidore perseveres to send TFC back to MLS Cup final

Craig Forrest and James Sharman discuss Toronto FC's victory over the Columbus crew Wednesday and whether this years team is better than last years.

• Columbus Crew 0, Toronto FC 1 (Altidore 60’)
• Suspended last week, Altidore scores winner in tight 2nd leg
• TFC to host MLS Cup final at BMO Field on Dec. 9

TORONTO – Major League Soccer now has its Bobby Baun moment.

Hobbled by an ankle injury suffered just minutes earlier, a limping Jozy Altidore emerged as the hero on Wednesday night when he scored the lone goal in Toronto FC’s 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final.

With the victory, TFC advances to the league championship final for a second consecutive year, and will host the MLS Cup on Dec. 9 at BMO Field.

After nearly having to be subbed out following a painful collision, Altidore took his chance brilliantly on the hour mark, fighting through the discomfort and latching onto a perfectly weighted pass from Victor Vazquez before firing home to clinch the aggregate series for the Reds.

In the post-match press conference, Altidore said that he couldn’t really move and was just hobbling around the pitch after getting his ankle taped up on the sidelines. When he came back in, he knew he couldn’t last long, so he was simply trying to stay on the field long enough to give his potential replacement enough time to warm up. He ended up scoring the winner.

“I knew that’d I have trouble continuing at the level that would be needed for a game like that. But I also wanted to give whoever was coming on potentially a little bit of time to get ready. I knew if there was a chance I could make a play, I wanted to be on the field for it. It all worked out in the end,” Altidore said.

TFC coach Greg Vanney gave Altidore a simple set of instructions when he re-entered the game.

“When he went back in after he taped it up, I said, go hard for as long as you feel like you can go and let me know where you’re at. The only way to test it is to push it. If you can’t go, then just tell me,” Vanney explained.

“He didn’t tell me, so I figured he was going to gut it out for as long as he could. The moment when he scored, it was like Keyser Soze – he went from limping to a perfect sprint and finished it beautifully.”

Captain Michael Bradley also praised Altidore for his character in fighting through the ankle injury.

“In a moment when nobody would have thought twice if he had been subbed out, he found a way to keep going and make a big play for us. I’m so proud of him, so happy for him,” Bradley said.

Played out before 30,392 spectators, this second leg was a tightly contested match between two sides who engaged in a cat-and-mouse contest in last week’s 0-0 draw in Ohio. Altidore and fellow forward Sebastian Giovinco were suspended for the first leg, but both had a hand in Wednesday’s lone goal, with the Italian serving as the setup man and the American finishing it off.

Toronto is now 90 minutes away from completing what would surely go down as the single greatest campaign in MLS history. The Reds repeated as Canadian club champions in 2017, and set a new record for most points in a single regular season with 69. All that remains is hoisting the MLS Cup trophy.

TFC will have that chance in large part thanks to Altidore. The American has scored some important goals during his time in Toronto. This was the biggest, though.

“This city means a lot to me. I came here [in 2015], and I didn’t know what to expect. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know what to expect from me. We were feeling each other out. It’s a beautiful love story, because I fell in love with this city, and I think the fans have fallen in love with me. I hope [TFC] is the last club I play for,” Altidore said.

Vanney made a number of lineup changes from the first leg, reverting back to his preferred 3-5-2 formation with Giovinco and Altidore starting up front instead of lone striker Tosaint Ricketts. Eriq Zavaleta was also inserted back into defence. Nicolas Hasler and Marky Delgado were relegated to the bench. Columbus was missing influential midfielder Artur, as the Brazilian was suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Mohammed Abu started in his place.

The opening half was a tactical chess match, with TFC dominating possession and the Crew dictating the tempo and hitting out in transition. Set up in a 3-2-4-1 formation, Columbus dropped back its two wingbacks and played five across the back line when defending in its half. As a result, Giovinco and Altidore were starved of service, and combined for only a few meaningful touches on the ball.

The Crew nearly opened the scoring on the counter-attack, but Justin Meram dawdled on the ball while closing in on TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono, and Bradley made a lung-busting recovery run to prevent the Crew midfielder from getting his shot off. Minutes later, Toronto’s Drew Moor was pulled down inside the 18-yard box. Vazquez stepped up to the penalty spot, and though he stuck it sweetly Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen came up with a brilliant save to deny the Spaniard.

Vanney brought on Delgado for Zavaleta at the start of the second half, switching to a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Vazquez pushed forward in support of TFC’s forwards. The game opened up a bit more for the Reds, who began to ask serious questions of the Crew’s defence.

Altidore appeared as though he had to be subbed off with an ankle injury after being clattered into from behind by Crew defender defender Harrison Afful. He struggled at first, limping off the field, before coming back on and fighting through to the pain and dealing with a taped ankle to break the deadlock with a marvellous goal.

Giovinco held up the ball on the edge of the box and played a back-heeled pass to Altidore. The American finished off a great give-and-go with Vazquez, burying his shot inside the far post past a helpless Steffen. Altidore carried on, but he eventually he had to be subbed out, and he was replaced by Armando Cooper.

“That’s heart. That’s all that is. That’s heart,” Bono said of Altidore.

Needing just one goal to win the aggregate series on the away goals rule, the Crew furiously pressed in attack for the final 20 minutes. Their chances were largely fleeting, and came to nothing as TFC saw things out.

Now Toronto FC turns its attention to avenging last year’s loss in the MLS Cup final.

Is there any chance Altidore won’t be along for the ride? None, according to the Reds’ striker.

“I’m playing in the MLS Cup final. It doesn’t matter how the ankle is. You’re not taking that game away from me,” Altidore said.

NOTES: Toronto will host the winner of the Western Conference final between the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup final. Seattle won the first leg 2-0 in Texas. The second leg goes Thursday in Seattle… The Sounders beat TFC at BMO Field in last year’s MLS Cup final via a penalty shootout.

Toronto FC supporters get an inside look into their favourite club every Monday night at 11 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. It’s an all-access pass with co-hosts Brendan Dunlop and Thomas Michalakos as they interview the biggest names around the team and preview and review of every TFC match.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.