Toronto FC are heading to another Canadian Championship final.
The Reds advanced past CF Montreal with a 4-0 win in the semifinals of the Voyageurs Cup on Wednesday night at BMO Field. A brace from Ayo Akinola either side of half-time, and goals from Jesús Jiménez and Alejandro Pozuelo in the second half saw TFC put four past their rivals in a dynamic attacking display.
They will meet Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the final next month after they defeated York United FC 2-1 at BC Place later in the other semifinal.
“Overall an important game for us, created a lot of chances,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “Nice to see us finish the game in a smart way and get a shutout – that's a long time coming. A lot of really good performances. A good team win; awesome to be in another final.”
Toronto started the game brightly – Jayden Nelson kissed a shot off the post inside of two minutes – but Montreal seemed content to absorb that pressure and wait for their moment. The first goal was going to be crucial on the night and what a goal it was that led to the breakthrough.
Kosi Thompson forced a turnover in midfield, touching it towards Michael Bradley who found Nelson in-field. He played forward to Jiménez, who in turn spotted the wide run of Luca Petrasso and slipped him into the area down the left and his first time touch teed up Akinola for the finish.
“It was an excellent performance by us,” said the scorer of the opening goal. “Happy to get the result, happy to get a clean sheet, first clean sheet this whole season. We came out on the front foot, attacked them, pressed them. We didn't want to give them a chance to breathe. We had to capitalize on our chances and we buried them.”
BMO Field was rocking, getting louder with each goal.
“The stadium was awesome,” said Bradley. “I know the rivalry, I know how much it means to the fans. They were out there for us tonight. That means a lot.”
“The players feel it when they come in from the warm up, they feel it after the game,” he continued. “It's great that we can share the moment with our fans and just keep the work going.”
Less chippy than some previous encounters, still the emotion of the occasion was on display.
“It is a true rivalry,” levelled Akinola. “Whenever we play them, we always want to kick their ass. Same thing for them whenever they play us.”
“There's always going to be tension, there's always going to be a battle,” he continued. “Not everything's going to be pretty when it comes to these two teams. Whoever is more ready, whoever is more prepared for it will eventually prevail.”
At times, it was pretty.
There was a dynamic fluidity to Toronto’s attack on the night, a ferocious verticality that Montreal could not handle. And there was a matching tenacity at the back. Between Michael Bradley, Ralph Priso, Shane O’Neill and Carlos Salcedo, everyone really, Montreal were not given a moment to rest.
Bob Bradley was pleased with that, but still saw moments to demand more.
“Throughout parts of the first half, we had advantages that we didn't do very well with – I see all of that stuff,” he reminded. “There's still a part that we've talked about all year that connects our ideas when we have the ball and what we look like defensively – there was a little stretch in the first half where I didn't like that part. Then we found a better way to deal with certain things.”
“There's a lot of positives. For me, the best part was that we created a lot of chances,” Bradley continued. “We created a lot of chances at Red Bull the other day and just didn't do well enough in certain moments. So the idea that we could continue with that part and then score four goals and then get a shutout, all those things are important.”
The brace added to a hat-trick in 2020 brings Akinola’s output against Montreal to five goals in four matches.
“I don't know, I don’t know,” he replied, asked about his penchant for scoring against the rivals. “Maybe it just brings the best out of me. To be honest, I can't really give you an answer for that. I’m just in the right place at the right time when it comes to them.”
His second goal was much like the first – a lightning quick transition attack that began on the boot of Michael Bradley. His touch to Pozuelo saw the Spaniard play a one-two with Jiménez to advance up the pitch before slotting a defense-splitting ball into the path of Akinola.
An intervention from Rudy Camacho nearly ended the move, but with both Ayo and Nelson in the vicinity, TFC smelt a chance and Akinola buried it, rattling the underside of the bar.
“It was between me and Jayden,” he recounted. “I saw [James] Pantemis was already going down, so it was the right time to shoot up high, just picking a spot knowing he can’t get it.”
Was there any thought of leaving it to his teammate to finish?
“Nah, nah. I even told him, ‘Sorry bro, I had to, I had to,’” laughed Akinola. “I was right on goal, right dead-centre so.”
Ten games into his return from an injury that sidelined him for nearly a year, Akinola is finding the form that saw him breakout in 2020. He wants more though.
“The goals were amazing, the goals gave me a confidence booster, but if I'm being realistic, I thought, overall, just in how the game went and my involvement into the game, I thought I didn't do a good job. I gave too many balls away, didn't connect, didn't get involved into the play too much,” he explained. “When I had my chances, I buried them.”
TFC want more.
“If you have a night where some things go your way and pretend that everything's now great, and then other nights when you let something get away, you just look at the negatives and fail to see the positive. The work of just trying to get better is ongoing,” balanced Bradley. “We'll enjoy it tonight. Now we get back into the league, we’ve got a busy stretch. And we've got to continue to find the right way to engage the whole group all the time, that's the only way to go.”
It’s nights like this that drive a team forward.
The path is never straight, but a taste of victory breeds a hunger for more. Lifting the 2020 Voyageurs Cup earlier this month was such a moment.
“We all know that the work to become a better team is ongoing. We knew when we started that this was going to take time, this was going to be emphasizing over and over little details, getting better in all parts of the game, becoming a more complete team,” laid out Bradley. “And so in the midst of all that when you can have a night where at the end there's a trophy and everybody's excited and you don't need to spend all your time talking about all the little things that could be better – we did that a few days later – but yeah, that's important.”
“Everybody, as they came in tonight,” he continued. “You can tell how excited they were to play semifinal at home with a chance to get into another final.”
The moments feed into each other.
Toronto’s busy stretch continues this weekend with the visit of Atlanta United on Saturday.
BMO Field will host the next three matches with the Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders FC to follow in quick succession.
Victory over Montreal and the knowledge that a spot in the Canadian Championship final awaits will propel Toronto into this important period.
“It boosts us,” said Akinola. “Knowing that there's another final this year that we get to play in next month. It was a statement win, a character win from all of us. It definitely boosts the morale going into Saturday against Atlanta.”