Toronto FC’s path back to the MLS Cup final was anything but pretty.
In its opening playoff series, Toronto withstood a late charge from the New York Red Bulls to advance by virtue of the away goals rule. In the process, it lost strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore to suspensions for yellow cards and violent conduct, respectively.
With those key players missing from the first leg of the Eastern Conference final against the Columbus Crew, a point-blank save from TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono and a subsequent blocked shot from forward Raheem Edwards preserved a key clean sheet on the road.
The Reds put forth another gutsy effort in the following game as Altidore’s 60th-minute goal was enough to put them through 1-0 on aggregate, setting up a rematch with the defending champion Seattle Sounders in Saturday’s title game in Toronto.
“At this point of the year, if you’re in the MLS Cup, it means that you’ve done something right along the way,” said defender Justin Morrow. “The great part of this team is that we’ve battled through it all.”
Midfielder Victor Vazquez said TFC takes pride in its ability to pull out results when the club isn’t playing its best soccer.
“We showed that we are one, like we say all the time, and we have to be proud of that,” Vazquez said after the second leg against the Red Bulls.
‘Lightning in a bottle’
In the playoffs, all it takes is one wrong bounce or deflection to change the dynamics.
The Red Bulls moved within a goal of advancing past Toronto after Daniel Royer’s long-range shot struck the leg of teammate Bradley Wright-Phillips and went past a helpless Bono. The fluke goal sparked a tense final 30 minutes, during which a season-saving stop from the TFC goalkeeper was required to keep his team’s championship hopes alive.
“It’s lightning in a bottle in terms of attitude, emotion — at times there’s desperation,” said Toronto head coach Greg Vanney. “When you add any of those things into a very short period of time, lots of things can combust and things can happen.”
TFC captain Michael Bradley remembers last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against New York City FC, where tensions also ran high. At the end of Toronto’s 2-0 victory in the first leg, the midfielder played peacemaker as some pushing and shoving ensued between some of his teammates and members of NYCFC.
Bradley said you can’t get fazed in those moments.
“You have to embrace that, you have to be comfortable with the idea that it may not be exactly how we would always want it to look, but that’s life this time of the year.”
Toronto hasn’t been scoring in bunches as it did during the regular season and last year’s playoffs, when it piled up 17 goals in five games en route to the final, but that’s just fine with Bradley as long as TFC gets the job done.
The Princeton, N.J., native said there’s no reason to feel sorry for winning, regardless of how it’s done, because the moment you do, opponents will smell blood and capitalize.
“We were on the other side of it last December. You don’t get bonus points — there’s no style points this time of year. If you can only win games one way, if on other days things look a little different and you’re not ready for that, then you’re not a complete team,” Bradley said.
Vanney’s squad evolved this post-season, showing an ability to adapt on the fly and take an opponent’s best punch. In contrast, Seattle has breezed through.
The reigning MLS coach of the year credited the defending champs for taking care of business and was very complimentary of the job their goalkeeper — ex-TFC starter Stefan Frei — and backline have done this season.
But Vanney is curious to see how the Sounders react once they’re placed into an intense game situation.
“When you play two games a man up, then obviously the opposition is not going to create a ton of chances. Their games never really opened up and teams never really pushed against them to create some havoc,” Vanney said.
In a couple of months, nobody is going to remember how TFC got to the championship game — the only memory will be the result.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter how we win. It just matters that we win… that we give everything we have and try to become champions,” Altidore said.