TORONTO – There is no such thing as too much drama in professional sport.
In recent years, watchers of Toronto FC have been blessed with more than their fair share of it. Whether it has been the Canadian Championship, the MLS regular season, the MLS Cup Playoffs, MLS Cup Finals, or the Concacaf Champions League, there have been a lot of matches and moments that stick firmly in the mind.
This week’s Match of the Week revisits last season’s eventful run to the MLS Cup Final once more, the third in four seasons, highlighting the Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United FC at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Georgia.
The start to the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs was electric.
As previously featured, the extra time goal-scoring feats against D.C. United in the first round earned TFC passage to the Conference Semifinals where they were pitted against Eastern Conference toppers, NYCFC.
There, more late heroics, this time from Alejandro Pozuelo and his last-minute penalty kick, was the difference as the club moved on in style.
After two quick, dramatic wins in the span of four days, Toronto now had a week to build into the match against Atlanta, looking to maintain that momentum.
“We were feeling good,” recalled Quentin Westberg of the mood in the group at the time. “The win against D.C. was kind of a relief. From New York on we trusted in ourselves. We weren't getting excited, we knew we were the underdogs, a situation that we like. Given the experience of the team, given up the form of the players that there were joining the team and this and that, we knew we could be a good playoff team, but it needed to materialize.”
“NYCFC was the first step, saying, ‘we can beat anyone’. NYCFC at the time was probably the best team in MLS. LAFC wasn’t on such a great run towards the end, NYCFC was doing really, really well, so it was a big challenge for us. Obviously it worked out, and it was another great collective win, so we were confident, but calm, like we had been for the past 13-to-15 games,” Westberg added. “Ever since that summer, where everyone in the whole group was available to Greg [Vanney], there was just this feeling of we need to get the job done. Very focused, but also relaxed and not overemotional. Confident, but still very humble.”
Regardless of where one finishes in the standings, when the playoffs roll around, to be the last team standing the best teams are going to have to be beaten. A trip to Atlanta in such circumstances was a mouth-watering fixture.
“When we claimed a playoff spot, I remember talking about it with Jozy [Altidore] and Chris [Mavinga] on several occasions. We were all saying, ‘this would be a good,’ ‘I'd rather do this and this and this,’” recounted Westberg. “And I was telling them, ‘Guys, we need to play Atlanta in Atlanta.’ [They] were going to be in a higher position than us, so it was going to be there. I said, ‘We need to go there.’”
“They were telling me, in the past, they had some success in Atlanta, and also it's a stadium where there's going to be a playoff atmosphere,” highlighted the goalkeeper. “We live for these games. I wasn't confident about it, not at all. I was just excited at the idea, so I said, ‘let's have a game in Atlanta.’”
“It was a big task. They have a great reputation, the stadium is very loud, but it's so good to feel that you're alone against all these people. You feel stronger in some sort of way,” Westberg noted. “The [prospect] of playing Atlanta, I'm not going to lie, personally was something that really put some extra motivation. These environments, as hostile as they are, they're the ones you really thrive in. You really fully appreciate your job and the moment.”
As game-day approached, anticipation turns to reality. And reality is seldom as welcoming as imagined.
“I remember going into that stadium, nerves, anxious, those butterfly feelings in the stomach,” setup Nick DeLeon on Footy Talks Live this week. “A little bittersweet feeling because you want to start in those games, in a game of that magnitude.”
“When the whistle goes, honestly, that was the most.... Being on the bench is far worse than being on the pitch. Far, far worse,” he confided. “My anxiety is through the roof, biting my nails, my feet going up and down, I'm just itching to get in the game at that point.”
Events did little to assuage that fluttering.
“They score the first goal pretty early,” recalled DeLeon. “You get that nervous feeling because you know Atlanta is very good team, especially inside their stadium.”
It took Julian Gressel just four minutes to put his side ahead.
Such an early goal can be shattering. The team has waited a week for this, worked all season to this point, and less than 240 seconds in, the terrain has shifted.
“Usually these situations are, ‘We've worked all this [way]. We've had this run up until now, and what? Now it all crumbles to the ground?’ So you have this feeling,” allowed Westberg. “We've been in enough games and the team has been through enough to know that usually an early goal – although MLS is very forward-minded and we are a very forward-minded team – it's still a little knock in the head.”
“This is unexpected. Not really the best start we can get, but at 1-0 we know we can score it anytime, we've come back from being down a goal quite a few times throughout the year, and especially throughout the end of the year,” he balanced. “So at 1-0, obviously we know it's not the best start, it's emphasized because it's the playoffs and it's a win-or-die situation, but it's not like our world crumbles. It's just you need to deal with this feeling, but then five seconds later it's all done, all gone and on to the next one, let’s find a solution.”
It was a body blow, of that there is no doubt.
A couple minutes later the hosts landed a second when Michael Bradley was judged to have fouled Pity Martinez in the area and Atlanta were eager to provide a potential-knockout punch from the penalty spot less than 15 minutes into the action.
“First thing first: I'm happy Mike didn't get a red card, because after, when you see the [replay] image, it's hardly a PK to be very honest,” recalled Westberg. “It’s well played from Pity Martinez, hardly a PK, but when I see it happen right in front of my eyes, I'm just hoping Mike doesn't get a red card. When I see he gets a yellow card: okay, we're going to get a battle now.”
“1-0 after four minutes, 2-0 after eight. This could be,” continued the goalkeeper. “Oh man, this could be a long game, this could be a hard game, nothing is going our way. And then all of a sudden, not that I blacked out, I just pushed myself to be, ‘it's me and him, that's it.’ I couldn't hear any more noise, I couldn't see anyone but him, and I had, not my plan, I had my idea of what I wanted to do, but still wanted to follow my instincts. I was just focusing on what's left to do.”
Staring down Josef Martinez, the most fearsome goal-scorer in the league over the past few seasons, with his team on the verge of a make-or-break moment was exactly where Westberg wants to be.
“That same feeling that I had going into the playoffs, hoping we would play Atlanta at some point,” compared the goalkeeper. “Instead of dramatizing the situation, I was embracing it.”
“Either it's 2-0 and it becomes a nightmare or it's keeping us alive and maybe get a chance to step up for the team,” he continued. “At that moment, the importance of the game or this or that, it's totally aside. I didn't do anything different because it was a conference final. It was just: I'm doing what I love, in an environment that's amazing. I'd rather be in this situation than anywhere else in the world. It happened to go my way and I'm really grateful for that.”
DeLeon was watching from the bench.
“When they got that early goal, the nerves start to take hold a little bit,” he explained. “Then that PK comes and that's when I was honestly: ‘If they score this, this could be it,’ especially the way that they were playing.”
“And when Q made that save, from that point on, I knew this was our game,” DeLeon stressed. “If Josef Martinez is not going to score a PK in the Eastern Conference Final to go up 2-0, it's not happening for them.”
Penalty kicks, whether within the context of a match or in a shootout, are peculiar: individual moments in a game defined by its flow, a team sport boiled down to its most basic element of shooter versus keeper. They are not normal moments, especially with so much at stake.
“You don't hope for these moments,” admitted Westberg. “You work for regularity, certain patterns and things that you bring to your team, whether it's a save, whether it's communicating, whether it's acting well, whether it's this and that.”
Their singularity makes them special.
“This is a moment where it's really spotlighted and it's highlighted,” allowed the goalkeeper. “There are a lot of other moments that are important, but this is the one you think about and that really materializes your commitment.”
Over the course of the regular season, conceding penalty kicks had been a problem for TFC. The club allowed 13 in 2019. The first seven were scored, before Pity Martinez skied his effort in the stoppage-time when the two clubs met in June at BMO Field.
Westberg would find more success in the five that remained, saving one and forcing another wide in the mental game that keepers play with their opponent.
“To be honest, I like it,” relished the goalkeeper of the chess match. “But we conceded a whole lot of penalties that year. In the past I've had a really good record in PK saves and shootouts, but at TFC it started pretty slow before I actually saved one and a few were hit over and I had some influence on it. But then it started going our way.”
Those bare bones moments, the rest of the game stripped away, would be pivotal in the run to the cup. It was Pozuelo’s nerves of steel that saw the club through NYCFC. And it was Westberg’s save in Atlanta that turned the tide on that night.
“Okay, maybe we can concede a few PKs,” he observed. “But when it really mattered, we went through the semifinals on a PK that we scored and made it to the MLS Cup on a PK that we did concede.”
And it was fitting that three minutes later it was Nicolas Benezet who provided the equalizer: Benezet lived with the Westbergs after arriving midseason.
“He was part of the family,” said the goalkeeper. “When he got here, given the loan situation and everything – we didn't know each other beforehand, but we had a lot of friends in common – it was a way to help out.”
“This game summarizes really well our adventure together: in a way, he made my PK save even greater than it could have been,” he explained. “If the game stays 1-0, it’s a save, we're still in the game, but we're maybe not through. And three minutes later, he scores.”
“This is what really hurt them I think,” singled out Westberg. “The PK save, [they could think], ‘we're still on top of the game’; when we score, it's levelled and momentum totally shifted.”
TFC knew a thing or two about momentum and it shifting or not.
“We talked about momentum after DC, when they get the late equalizer and momentum did not shift,” compared Westberg. “In Atlanta, momentum shifted. They still had a little bit of the edge – they were at home – but we were back in it and in a big way.”
DeLeon called Benezet’s strike “a bit of brilliance.”
“Cutting in from the outside on the left-side of the pitch, whipping it in with his right-foot,” he continued. “Spectacular goal, tied it up. After that it was pretty neutral, cagey.”
Which did little for his churning on the bench.
“You could feel the nerves start to bubble as the second half comes because you know every minute that ticks is a minute closer to you getting called on the pitch,” he explained. “And then when my name got called, I was very, very nervous, more so than normal, that's for sure. Almost nausea in the stomach when I ran out on that field. So in my head I'm thinking: just get the first touch, settle yourself in the game, and then it'll be smooth sailing from there.”
“My intention was to bring energy,” continued the substitute. “At that point Atlanta were starting to take the tide of the game. So for me it was bring energy, bring some life to the guys. They're tired, they’re running on turf, so I'm going to run for some guys, I'm going to work. And on the other end, I'm going to be aggressive. I want to get the ball and run and try and make something happen for my guys.”
“And we kind of did,” he smiled. “There's was one moment; I was fortunate enough to get that moment. It's a team game, those guys are out there grinding for 60-70+, it's my job to come out there and be a spark.”
It happened in the 78th minute.
“The ball goes out wide to Pozo, I’m trying to bust my butt because I see the space. I was looking to play the ball outside to the right. That was my initial plan: to turn, pirouette, and play outside,” revealed DeLeon. “But when I turned and there was nobody in my peripheral, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm going to go for it. I'm going to have a shot.’”
“Honestly, right when I hit it, I knew,” he added. “You know when you strike the ball pure and you strike it clean, and it was one of those strikes. As soon as I looked up, I knew it was going in. From that moment on I kind of just lose my mind a little bit, don’t know what to do, so I ran to the bench.”
According to Westberg, he had “the best angle” on DeLeon’s game-winner.
“When I think about this game, I think about what I felt when I saw it go,” he continued. “I had the perspective, I was in the perfect angle, there was no one in front of me, I had a whole corridor, so I basically had number 18 just turning and striking the ball.”
“The perfect strike. [Brad] Guzan was so far away from the ball. He dove after.... it was unbelievable,” Westberg added, struggling to fully encapsulate the moment with mere words. “The image in my mind is so beautiful.”
It is just one of those things, fitting almost, that in a year that was marked by the need to rebuild, it was a trio of new editions that proved the difference makers on the night.
Then the final whistle blew and TFC had earned a place in the final.
“A good feeling, a good feeling,” began Westberg. “A feeling that we're a team and we embrace adversity. This year hadn't been a very steady year for us, there have been ups and downs, but we stuck to an identity.”
It was a testament to principles.
“Even though the wind was blowing we didn’t fly away. We were consistent, especially in the style of play, playing a very ambitious system and a style that's not easy to produce and endure on a day-to-day basis,” he continued. “When you want a lot of the ball, you expose yourself and you’re going to get scored on a little bit more, giving up big chances, but you really enjoy it. You enjoy the game and so you're proud to move in that direction.”
“And for it to materialize,” he reflected. “For us to go from a season where in June, just making the playoffs would have been great, to actually competing for the title and being one of the two remaining teams in November was a great statement for the brand of soccer that we play.”
And the gritty ones always taste a little sweeter in the end.
“The 5-1 [against D.C.] still felt like a very close game, we had 15 minutes to enjoy, knowing that only something never seen before could change the outcome of the game,” compared Westberg. “But when you struggle like we did against NYCFC, like we did in Atlanta, it's a good feeling. You feel like warriors, in a way.”
“Warriors, promoting a good brand of soccer,” he added. “There's this idea that creative players and good players with the ball at their feet can’t compete, can't get into fights, can’t get physical. There we promoted a great style of soccer, both technical and mental.”
An MLS Cup Final appearance, even if it ended in disappointment, was a nice capstone to the goalkeeper’s first season with the club, having arrived in February. A year that proved more than he could ever have imagined.
“I came here because I knew the club was really well structured and would be a great experience for myself as a soccer player and for my family given that we heard only great things about the city and the country,” said Westberg. “That was the first part, what motivated our move. And then as soon as I walked into the training ground and as soon as I had my first game at BMO Field, I felt like it was a perfect match for me, it was the place that I was looking for, the place that I needed at this moment.”
Even with the events that have forced everyone out of their usual rhythms, Westberg says “the family is loving” their new home.
“It's been a big move, but I'm so proud of them from that standpoint,” he added. “Adapting to a new country, a new culture, and to have adapted like they did is what gave me the most strength.”