ATLANTA — It was no work of beauty. But Toronto FC dug itself out of a hole in Atlanta on Wednesday and found itself in the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years.
The 2-1 victory was hard work. Toronto fell behind in the fourth minute to defending champion Atlanta United FC and needed goalkeeper Quentin Westberg to staunch the bleeding with an 11th-minute penalty save off Josef Martinez.
Nicolas Benezet tied it up in the 14th minute and Toronto regained its bearing before an announced crowd of 44,055 under the dome at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta controlled most of the second half, coming in waves. Toronto, using all its savvy and experience, held off the home side — sometimes with little regard to the rule book. And then substitute Nick DeLeon scored a beauty in the 78th minute to finally put Toronto ahead in the Eastern Conference final.
"We have a group of guys who have been through a lot of these experiences," said captain Michael Bradley in a raucous Toronto dressing room. "It means that we’re battle-tested. It mans when you get on the field in these moments you’re not fazed. It doesn’t mean that everything goes exactly to plan.
"It’s actually in the moments when it doesn’t go to plan that the experience, that part really shines through. Tonight it was about the mentality, the sheer determination, the competitive spirit from every guy to keep going even when it didn’t come easy. Big teams know how to wins these kind of games."
Toronto advances to face the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final Nov. 10, this time in the Pacific Northwest. Second-seeded Seattle upset league-leading Los Angeles FC 3-1 on Tuesday in the Western Conference final at Banc of California Stadium.
Toronto lost to the Sounders in a penalty shootout in 2016, avenging that loss with a 2-0 win in the 2017 championship game. Both matches were at BMO Field.
Atlanta had 57.1 per cent of the possession and outshot Toronto 18-4, but only 5-4 in shots on target. Toronto outfouled the home side 16-9, with 11 of those coming in the second half.
The winning goal started with a pass from Alejandro Pozuelo. DeLeon, who had come on in the 54th minute, pivoted at the edge of the penalty box to make room for his shot and curled the ball high into the Atlanta goal over a diving Brad Guzan. Atlanta, which had controlled most of the second half, was furious believing DeLeon had fouled a player in the buildup to the goal.
"Definitely my favourite goal," said a beaming DeLeon.
Atlanta pressed in the final minutes but Toronto held out for five nerve-wracking minutes of stoppage time with Westberg making a key reflex save at the near post to preserve the win. Guzan came up for the ensuing corner but Toronto cleared the danger.
Toronto did no spare the celebrations. Booze was quickly funnelled into the Eastern Conference trophy and players were soon swigging. The celebrations could be heard in the news conference room as Altanta coach Frank de Boer discussed the loss.
"It feels great," said Westberg, who has come up big time and time again in the playoffs. "It felt we had a lot of people against us tonight and we had to go through adversity."
"We had momentum and heart going our way … Sometimes just the brave team and the strong team and the resilient team wins."
TFC won for the third time without striker Jozy Altidore (quad) and centre back Omar Gonzalez (hamstring), who are still working their way back
"We were missing a couple of guys … nobody outside of our club thought could maybe get it done except for our fans and us," said coach Greg Vanney. "And like true champions, (we) just found a way tonight to get it done. (We) played with grit, played with heart, played with real character, resilience, made plays … and then scored two incredible goals.
"Look sometimes on the road in a one-off game, you’ve just got to come up with ways. That’s what great teams do."
Julian Gressel scored in the fourth minute for Atlanta, which looked for an early knockdown in the matchup of last two MLS Cup winners. Westberg threw Toronto a lifeline when he saved the penalty in the 11th minute, preventing the home side from doubling the lead.
Benezet then scored three minutes later for Toronto to restore order.
The wild opening turned into a tense, cagey second half. Tied at 1-1, Atlanta dominated possession with Toronto willing to foul to snuff out the threats.
Wednesday’s game was played with the retractable roof closed thanks to a downpour outside.
It proved to be a wild opening. Toronto stroked the ball around for the opening minutes from kickoff only to see things suddenly go south.
Ezequiel Barco opened up the Toronto defence with a seeing-eye diagonal ball that bypassed Josef Martinez and found Pity Martinez all alone with only Westberg to beat. With three Toronto defenders racing to catch up, Pity Martinez unselfishly sent the ball over to an unmarked Gressel for an easy tap-in.
It went from bad to worse when a penalty was awarded to Atlanta after Bradley took down Pity Martinez, who had been sent in alone by Jeff Larentowicz. The penalty call survived a video review and then Westberg dove to his right and got a hand on the Josef Martinez spot kick. Bradley was cautioned on the play.
Toronto responded in the 14th minute when a fine long ball from centre back Laurent Ciman found Benezet cutting in on the left flank. The French winger slashed towards the edge of the penalty box and curled in a marvellous shot that beat a diving Guzan.
Atlanta had not allowed a goal in 419 post-season minutes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Westberg made back-to-back fine saves in the 37th and 38th minutes, parrying a hard Gressel shot from a sharp angle before getting a hand to a curling long-range Pity Martinez effort.
TFC changed formation, shifting to a back three flanked by wingbacks, with Richie Laryea coming in for Tsubasa Endoh at the half. Atlanta controlled the game early in the second half with Toronto offering some hard-noise defence in response.
DeLeon came on in the 54th minute for Benezet as Toronto rang in the changes.
Still Atlanta came on with Josef Martinez hitting the side netting in the 58th minute. Westberg stopped Josef Martinez again with another fine save in the 66th minute, although the play was called for offside.
Patrick Mullins came in for the injured Auro in the 68th minute as Vanney, wearing a scarf indoors perhaps for luck, used his last sub. Toronto reverted to a back four.
Toronto fielded the same starting lineup for the third straight time in the post-season.
The injury news was better for Atlanta, which had captain Michael Parkhurst back at the heart of its defence after dislocating his shoulder Oct. 19 against New England. Defender Miles Robinson (hamstring) remains out.
Toronto is now unbeaten in its last 13 games (7-0-6) with its last loss a 2-0 setback Aug. 3 at the New York Red Bulls. TFC has still never lost a playoff game outside of Canada.
Atlanta was unbeaten in its last four outings (3-0-1) and had lost just once in its last seven outings (5-1-1).
TFC, which finished eight points behind Atlanta in the regular season, came into the game with a career 2-1-3 record against the Five Stripes but had never won at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (0-1-2).