MONTREAL – When Michael Bradley looked around the locker-room in 2014, his first season at Toronto FC, he saw a team “too young and too naive.”
Greg Vanney, who took over as manager with 10 games remaining that season, also saw problems.
He recalled a seminal moment in August 2014 when GM Tim Bezbatchenko sent a message to the team via the media, saying it was time to “to take it up a notch.” Instead the squad looked disinterested in a 3-0 loss to New England.
“I took that as maybe we don’t have enough men, seasoned men in this team,” Vanney said later. “And maybe we don’t have enough guys who know how to win.”
Manager Ryan Nelsen and five members of his coaching staff were fired the day after the New England loss, with Vanney taking charge.
Fast forward two seasons and Toronto FC is exhibiting the kind of maturity and resilience that Vanney and Bradley, now captain, have been after.
Down 2-0 after 12 minutes and 3-0 after 53 minutes Tuesday night, Toronto rallied with two valuable away goals in the 68th and 73rd minutes in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Impact in Game 1 of the MLS Eastern Conference final. Despite the defeat, Toronto returns home for the second leg on Nov. 30, knowing the slimmest of wins will move it into the MLS Cup final against either Colorado or Seattle.
The comeback had the club’s braintrust – Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum, Toronto president Bill Manning and Bezbatchenko – smiling in the locker-room afterwards.
“We were saying there isn’t a TFC team before this that probably would have been able to dig themselves out of a hole like that,” Vanney said. “That’s a tribute to the character of this group, the belief, because there weren’t a lot of things going overly well for us during a lot of the game.”
“I think we’ve grown up a lot,” he added.
It was a loss that somehow felt like a victory, although Vanney was quick to note there is nothing to celebrate yet.
Toronto’s comeback, thanks to goals by Bradley and Jozy Altidore, came before a hostile crowd of 61,004 indoors at Olympic Stadium. And while Toronto still lost, it managed to shed the hoodoo of last year’s embarrassing playoff defeat in Montreal when it was thumped 3-0.
Instead of folding, this time Toronto redoubled its efforts.
“You find out a lot about your group when things go up in smoke a little bit,” said Bradley. “For me the big takeaway tonight is how easy it would have been to pack it, to feel sorry for ourselves. We did last year.
“A year later on an even bigger stage, when we were put to the test even more, we came through in a pretty big way. Sure, would it have been nice to get the third (goal) and walk out of here at 3-3? Yeah. But I’d rather be in this locker-room than that one right now.”
That’s a long way from too young and too naive.
Consider too that Toronto was 13-1-1 when it scored first during the regular season and 1-8-8 when it conceded first. The conference final was a timely place to reverse that trend.
It did not come easy, however.
Early on, Toronto’s lack of pressure up front allowed Montreal to shift to the counter-attack at speed. Montreal also played midfielder Patrice Bernier higher than usual, which caused problems. Toronto found itself going forward, then suddenly looking behind it at Impact players racing the other way.
“We were a little bit late and we were moving in the wrong direction,” said Vanney. “And we paid for it.”
Vanney’s decision to send on midfielder Will Johnson and forward Tosaint Ricketts in the 57th minute changed things, stabilizing the midfield and presenting Montreal with more problems up front.
Ricketts’ energy rubbed off on some teammates, getting them more involved, according to Vanney.
While TFC saw plenty of positives, Montreal still handed the club only its third loss in 19 games (11-3-5). A win or tie in Toronto will see the Impact end Toronto’s season once again.
“There’s still a lot of soccer to be played,” warned Vanney.
But it will be done on Toronto’s home turf with a possible record BMO Field crowd of some 36,000 roaring them on.