TORONTO – Halfway through the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal, there are signs that something special is happening at Toronto FC.
Backed by a loud, proud and noisy crowd at BMO Field, Greg Vanney’s team scored two late goals in a performance long on resolve and character to take a 2-0 lead over New York City FC into the return leg next Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
Jozy Altidore’s 84th-minute goal snapped a feisty stalemate before substitute Tosaint Ricketts added another in stoppage time to give Toronto a decided edge. NYCFC needs to keep Toronto off the scoreboard and score at least twice to stay alive. And TFC can pile on the pressure with an away goal, which counts double in the event the aggregate score is tied after 180 minutes.
In a chippy game that saw five yellow cards shown to New York and just one to Toronto, the home side showed maturity and restraint – with teammates pulling Altidore away when tempers flared after the final whistle. And TFC kept chipping away at the visitors until the goals finally came.
In another season, the game might have ended in a 0-0 stalemate – especially with the visitors looking to defend. But Toronto showed its determination, turning the screws until NYCFC cracked.
“This is what we had talked about from the first day of pre-season this year,” said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. “A team that on the toughest days could stand up. On the toughest days, could hold up to every challenge. Up until now that’s the biggest game we’ve played in this season and every single guy who stepped on the field – from the guys who started to the guys who came on the field – came through in a big big way.
“It’s another night that every guy on the inside of this locker-room should be very very proud of. It’s also not over and we’re very mindful of that.”
Bradley was immense on the night, leading the team with 77 touches, 55 passes and nine tackles. He repeatedly robbed NYCFC players of possession.
“He’s the engine on this team right now,” said Toronto defender Drew Moor.
It was a chilly windy night at BMO Field but the 28,220 on hand made a lot of noise.
“It wasn’t an easy game at all,” said New York coach Patrick Vieira. “The atmosphere in the stadium was electric. And I think the fans were incredible.”
Vanney called the crowd amazing.
“It was, for me, far and away the greatest night in the stadium in terms of the fans and the crowd and the energy.”
“It’s probably the best MLS atmosphere I’ve ever been in,” added Moor, a 12-year veteran of the league. “it was unreal.”
Once the league doormat that had to keep rolling back ticket prices to retain fans, Toronto FC is building a special rapport with its faithful. Banging the drum and leading the Viking clap in front of the south stand has become a player tradition with Altidore summoned to do the honours Sunday.
“It was cool, man,” said Altidore. “Look, the fans have waited for moments like this for so long, to feel the importance of a team that’s trying to build something, that’s trying to win trophies. This is all for them. We play for them and we feed off their energy.”
The go-ahead goal came from a Bradley free kick that NYCFC failed to clear. The ball bounced around the penalty box with Ricketts taking a swing before it went to Altidore, who buried it in the net with a high shot.
Toronto had been pushing the pace and deserved the goal. Ricketts made it 2-0 in injury time, poking in a Nick Hagglund cross on a second attempt. Ricketts, who came on in the 83rd minute, started the play by winning the ball from a NYCFC player.
New York had come out looking to keep its defence tight with Spanish international Andoni Iraola dropping into defence to create a back five when needed. And that was in addition to two holding midfielders.
Tempers flared in the 20th minute when New York city star forward David Villa and Toronto’s Armando Cooper got tangled up. Villa appeared to kick out at the Panamanian as the two separated but escaped sanction. Villa could be punished retroactively if the MLS Disciplinary Committee decides action is needed.
“On any other day, in any other league, I think that player sees a suspension .. For me it was pretty blatant,” said Vanney.
A diplomatic Vieira said he needed to see a replay before commenting.
A frustrated Villa, who had just 30 touches on the night, was subbed in the 78th minute.
Cooper got a yellow in the 23rd minute when the two bounced off each other contesting a ball.
The anticipated matchup between the teams’ marquee designated players was not quite as expected. Only Villa started for New York City FC with Frank Lampard coming on in the 61st minute. Andre Pirlo did not dress due to a “tight muscle” in his leg.
Norwegian Eirik Johansen made his second straight start in the New York goal, replacing Josh Saunders, who had made 59 consecutive league starts in goal dating back to April 24, 2015. It was Toronto’s first ever win over New York City FC after two losses and three ties.
Toronto came into Sunday’s game having lost just two of its last 16 games (9-2-5) while NYCFC had lost only three of its last 12 games (6-3-3).
The two teams were separated by just one point during the regular season, with NYCFC finishing ahead in second place to secure a first-round bye. Toronto, which lost its post-season debut in Montreal last season, defeated Philadelphia 3-1 Wednesday to advance.
Sunday marked the first ever playoff game for New York City FC, which entered the league in 2015.