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Playoff mentality powers Toronto FC to Decision Day win

TORONTO – One more game at BMO Field.

Toronto FC secured a home match in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC.

Alejandro Pozuelo scored the game-winner from a free-kick in the 58th minute and results elsewhere saw TFC leap over D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

“I was pleased with our performance,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “They’re a tough team to break down. We knew that: the same scenario that we encountered when we went to Columbus – they lock you down in areas of the midfield, make it tough for you. We knew we were going to have our fair share of ball, it was going to be about could we finish some of the chances we created and manage them in transition because they’ve got guys who can break out quick. We did a pretty good job of that – some of the first half ones that seemed close were actually offside: with the linesmen not raising their flags, you don’t really know, but they informing me they were.”

“We had to play for 90 minutes today, that was one of the things we talked about,” continued Vanney. “No matter what happens we play for 90 minutes, play professional, see the game out, mitigate risk, not turn over balls in bad spots – there was a couple moment we’ll talk about – but in general, we saw it out professionally. These are all important lessons as we go into a unique playoff setting which is one-and-done. Every play matters, we tried to take that approach today.”

Both sides had looks through the first half – Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room made a stupendous double-save on Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley in the 36th minute – but it was a moment of quality from Pozuelo that proved the difference after Altidore was fouled just above the arc.

Both players stood over the ball, but Altidore put the chance on Pozuelo’s boot.

“Jozy went to shoot, but he said, ‘No, you shoot,’” relayed Pozuelo. “Last time I gave [it] to him and he told me, ‘You shoot now, because I think you will score.’”

“He gave me this confidence,” he continued. “I saw the goalkeeper stayed in the middle, didn’t block too much the left side or the right side, so this is my best hope.”

His right-footer picked out a spot to the keeper’s left, nestling in the netting to put TFC ahead.

“He’s able to pull off stuff like that,” said Toronto keeper Quentin Westberg, who had a unique view of the finish from his own box. “This guy has magic in his feet that was an unbelievable free-kick.”

Westberg had no sympathy for his counterpart: “I’ve taken so many goals in my life that I cannot feel sorry for anyone. I know how it feels, but it’s better to take goals like that than cheaper ones.”

Having seen last weekend’s match in Chicago devolve into a wild 2-2 draw, the controlled match against Columbus was part of Toronto’s preparation for the thin margins of the post-season.

“Definitely,” agreed Vanney. “A little bit of Chicago was fatigue. We started to get a little bit loose in terms of that controlled, structured approach that has been good for us. Today was a response, keep control of the game, keep our shape, the guys did a good job to focus on that.”

It was the club’s first 1-0 win in MLS play this season – something that will have pleased Vanney – and just their second this season in all competitions, the other in the second leg of the Canadian Championship final against the Montreal Impact.

Tellingly, both have come in the last two weeks as Toronto has gone unbeaten in ten matches to close the campaign.

The clean-sheet was “icing on the cake” for Westberg.

“It wasn’t an easy game. They had nothing to lose, came in 100%,” explained the keeper. “It was a playoff rehearsal for us, a lot of tension. It’s just a very good feeling to win, to come back here and play another game at BMO.”

In such tight games, it is individual moments that can prove decisive.

“It’s critical. Whether it’s playoffs, tight games, you can win them in the run of play, you can win them through set-pieces – we had a good chance with Omar [Gonzalez] on the corner kick towards the end. All of these things are important for us,” said Vanney. “That’s why I say every play matters, every set-piece matters, every throw in matters. I’d like for us to be more efficient in the run of play, we were in some really good spots, had some really good looks that we didn’t finish off. Something we’ll take some repetitions this week to sharpen up.”

Heading into Decision Day, it was clear that Toronto would have to win and have the soccer gods smile favour upon them to return to BMO Field again in two weeks time.

“You come into the day knowing that you can only take care of what you control,” laid out Michael Bradley. “But I had a feeling that if we could take care of business here that, given the way things could play out in Montreal and in D.C., we’d have a real chance. To have a few things fall into place for us and to get a home game to start the playoffs is huge.”

TFC could only focus on what they had to do and let the rest play out as it would.

“It’s not something that I thought about a lot. I was focused on our performance today, [that] is the most important thing going into the playoffs,” said Vanney. “Over these last ten games we’ve gone to some difficult stadiums and done well. We tried to carry momentum forward, defend well, get the shutout, and win the game.”

“The rest of it I didn’t think much about until we came in at half-time, heard that Montreal was up [on the New York Red Bulls] and Cincinnati was drawn [with D.C.], but then when I heard they were down two men, I wasn’t all that optimistic,” admitted Vanney. “I should never bet against Nick Hagglund. I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about the other results until it got down to the wire and then I started to ask more frequently.”

News of the ongoing events filtered down to the coach staff and out onto the field, but it wasn’t until the team was thanking the fans after the final whistle that the confirmation of a scoreless draw at Audi Field guaranteed a return to BMO Field.

“It was going from upstairs to the bench to me,” said Vanney. “It was a little bit of motivation for the guys on the field, to know: finish this game out, it’s there for us.”

“That helps,” he added. “On Decision Day, when a lot of things are happening at the same time, the guys wanted to know. A little extra motivation down the stretch when you’re really hanging on to something.”

October 19 at BMO Field. Be there.

“For anybody who has played in them, who has lived them, they’re different,” reminded Bradley of big games in Toronto. “Regardless of who we’re playing against, regardless of who is on the other side, to be able to start these playoffs with a home game in front of our fans, in our stadium: hopefully it’s a Toronto night in every sense. We’ll make sure that we’re ready to go after the game and make it another big night.”