Toronto FC advanced to the semifinals of the Canadian Championship on Tuesday night with a 2-1 win over HFX Wanderers FC in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
After scrappy, scoreless first half, TFC captain Michael Bradley, in the right place at the right time, scored the game’s opening goal in the 55th minute, getting the final touch from close range after Jordan Perruzza guided a Luca Petrasso corner kick towards goal with a firm header at the near-post.
Toronto had a handful of chances to seal the result, but it was Halifax who found the equalizer when Samuel Salter sauntered in from the right before placing a low left-footed shot to the bottom left-corner of goal, catching Quentin Westberg unsighted in the 69th minute.
Tied at ones with 20-odd minutes to play, it was set up for a dramatic conclusion.
And it was the hometown kid, Jacob Shaffelburg, who provided the crucial ball that made the difference.
Petrasso slipped his teammate in down the left, Shaffelburg took a touch wide and delivered a promising ball to the back-post. Ayo Akinola couldn’t turn on it, but Jonathan Osorio arrived in the nick of time with a sliding touch that caromed off the underside of the crossbar, bounced off a mass of bodies and into the Halifax goal – it was ruled an own-goal off of defender Peter Schaale.
In front of a jam-packed Wanderers Ground it was an epic night of action, one that will live long in the memory.
“It’s a cup tie, man. It’s a hard match,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “Halifax was well-prepared, they were really motivated, the crowd was great.”
“In the first half our tempo was too slow, too many guys were getting stuck on the ball, there were too many times where extra touches were getting us into trouble,” he continued, explaining the trio of substitutions at half time where TFC brought on Osorio, Akinola, and Jesús Jiménez. “We're fortunate that in that situation we've got guys that, football wise, can help us. That made a big difference.”
“Still it goes to the end, so credit to Halifax,” Bradley added. “[HFX coach] Stephen [Hart] does a good job and they have a good group of players. Tonight you could tell they were ready.”
Such nights are what the cup is all about.
“These matches are important for our country and the growth of our sport,” highlighted Osorio. “It was a great experience coming over here and seeing the atmosphere here.”
“It was great to see their fans come and support them and push their team and give their team belief. And we got the win,” he added. “So that helps obviously.”
Having taken the lead, Toronto looked to be in the driver’s seat, but that Salter equalizer really revitalized Halifax and for a spell the tie was finely balanced.
“Every place I’ve been, when you first enter the cup you play away games against teams like Halifax. It’s the same around the world, those games just take on a whole different feel,” explained Bradley. “You’ve got to be at your best, you've got to be sharp, and oftentimes if you're just a little bit off in certain moments, the other team starts to believe and they hang in there, and then the game becomes a real fight. And that's what tonight is all about.”
Added Osorio: “In these games, it's a bit easier for the CPL teams to really get up for it and bring the intensity, especially at home. That comes naturally. They brought it and I don't think we did for most of the game, so credit to them, they gave us a hard time today.”
But with a penalty shootout looming, TFC found a way.
“It became a little bit of a chaotic game,” recounted Osorio. “They got a lot of confidence off the goal and the pressure is on us to finish it.”
“We got up the field, somebody slipped through Jacob and he took a touch wide. He had a chance to go on goal and be the hero in his city, but he took the touch wide and did really well to put a cross in,” he continued. “As soon as he touched wide, I saw an opening at the back-post. When he puts it in there, it leads to good things. I didn’t hit it the way I wanted to, I hit it a little bit too high, but it was close enough that it hit off the crossbar and went in.”
Lead restored, it was not time to celebrate.
“There was still time left, the game wasn't done,” replied Osorio, asked about his muted celebration. “We had to regroup and we needed to finish it off in the right way.”
Fitting that it was Shaffelburg, who made his return from injury off the bench in the 70th minute, that was at the heart of the breakthrough.
“He was really excited,” said Bradley. “Jacob's still growing as a professional, he's still learning every day, but anybody who has spent time around him knows he's a really good guy. And so it meant a lot for him growing up around here to come and play and he came on and helped, so I was happy for him.”
“The part that you always have from Jacob is his willingness to run, his willingness to get on the end of a ball,” he stressed. “When he does get down the left side, he's got a good ability to get balls across. At that point in the game we switched a little bit more to 4-4-2 so that he can be in that left midfield spot. It put Jacob in the best possible situation to make a play like the one he made.”
Said Osorio: “Jacob is a direct player and he can really hurt you with his speed and his energy.”
“And that's what we need from him. He brought that today,” he continued. “I'm really happy that he got to play this game in front of his home crowd and family and friends. It was amazing to see.”
“He was a little bit nervous and I think the nerves showed in the first couple of plays, but he shook it off and got into it and got confidence,” Osorio added. “Coming off an injury, I thought he played really well. Maybe if he didn't take the touch so wide, he would have been the hero in his home town, but it was a huge play for us in the game.”
With the chaos of the last few years, Toronto FC has a unique opportunity to lift the Voyageurs Cup twice this season.
The 2020 final against Forge FC will take place in Hamilton at Tim Horton’s Field on June 4 and the quest for this year’s edition will continue later in the month with the semifinal round scheduled for June 21-23 at BMO Field.
Their opponent will be determined on Wednesday night with a meeting between CF Montreal and Forge at Stade Saputo in Montreal – either way, it’ll be another magical cup night.