TORONTO – Even if it took a little longer than usual, that BMO Field magic was on display again on Saturday night.
Toronto FC moved on to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 5-1 win over D.C. United, kicking off the MLS Cup Playoffs in emphatic fashion.
Through the first 93 minutes or so, it seemed an entirely different affair.
Marky Delgado gave TFC the lead in the 32nd minute when he pounced on the rebound from an Alejandro Pozuelo shot and tucked it in to the D.C. goal.
The visitors had their chances to level, in particular a few that drew stunning saves on Wayne Rooney from Quentin Westberg, but Toronto managed to see out that danger until deep into stoppage-time.
But then a final corner kick fell into the box and Lucas Rodriguez arrived at the back-post to equalize, sending the game into 30 minutes of extra time.
“That would have been nice,” quipped Greg Vanney post-match, of finishing the game inside the initial 90. “We had to see out one more corner kick and they score.”
“Our response after we give away a goal late was incredible,” he continued. “We give up one – I wouldn’t have done it – but we re-grouped, the guys regrouped mentally, we re-shaped ourselves. We just completely opened up the game, some of the attacking play, some of the finishing, all that stuff started to come out in droves. It was nice, but just showed some real mental toughness.”
Michael Bradley summed up the situation TFC faced: “You have two choices.”
“You can feel sorry for yourself, be shaking your heads, pointing fingers, and thinking, ‘Why us?’” weighed the TFC captain. “Or you can look at each other and say, ‘We still have 30 minutes and we’re at home.’ [D.C.] had to put so much into the game just to get one goal like that, that if we kept at it, kept playing forward and moving, being aggressive, then more chances were going to come.”
Being so close to the final whistle only to have the game pulled back level was, “At first upsetting for sure,” according to Jonathan Osorio.
“But we got ourselves together, gathered as a group and we picked each other up, saying, ‘That the game is not over, we have 30 minutes to win this,’” relayed Osorio. “And if we keep playing the way that we were playing, we knew that we would come out on top.”
The coach’s message?
“Win the game,” joked Vanney. “Be aggressive; let’s not fall back. I just wanted us to be aggressive.”
“We were going to go into the overtime, we wanted to change the mindset right off the bat,” he continued. “We did it well.”
The ability to find that extra level in the face of adversity is a measure.
“It says a lot. You’re always going to get knocked down. You are always going to have controversy, but it is how you respond,” said Nick DeLeon. “And today we responded very well.”
When play resumed, Richie Laryea put Toronto ahead in the 93rd minute, an attacking move begun by Bradley that saw DeLeon thread the full-back down the right-side of the area for a strong finish. Osorio then bagged an eight-minute brace – first from the doorstep, knocking in a corner kick that fell at his feet from close range and second with a deft half-volley from the top of the box, connecting sweetly with a ball from Pozuelo.
DeLeon himself, playing against his former team, score his second goal of the season against D.C. with a gorgeous right-footer shaped to the top corner.
“Yeah, it was special,” smiled the midfielder. “It felt good, for sure.”
“I had time and space, tried to pick out the far corner,” detailed DeLeon. “The guys put in an incredible shift today. I felt motivated in the overtime – it was my man that scored in the regulation time. I was definitely prepared to do what I had to do to help the team win. It was as simple as that.”
In the furour of D.C.’s late equalizer and four goals in 13 minutes, the importance of Westberg’s saves was overshadowed. They should not be.
“Positionally excellent, in the right places, reactions fantastic,” said Vanney. “I was irritated that we leave Rooney in a spot to finish two on us – he’s the one guy we wanted to know where he was at all times, but he got away from us. Q made a few saves that were critical on the night. He’s been excellent, both with his feet and his saves.”
And now Toronto move to the next round, a date set with NYCFC on Wednesday at an unfamiliar ground, Citi Field, rather than Yankee Stadium, their usual home.
The captain, as always, put the night in perspective.
“On our best days, the mentality in this group has been so strong. Our ability when those lights come on brightest to have a group of guys who aren’t scared, and go after things, and play and compete and leave everything they have on the field, I’m so proud of that,” began Bradley. “We missed Jozy [Altidore] tonight, an hour before the game lose Omar [Gonzalez], and we play a good game, we’re up 1-0.”
“They manage to find a goal on set-piece in the last minute. So many teams would be thrown for a loop,” he continued. “But our ability to keep going, keep playing, stick with it – that part is special. That part always has to be there.”
“We’ve not done anything yet – nothing. Everybody knows that. We’re excited, we’re proud, happy to be able to give the fans a night like this to start things off in the playoffs,” Bradley stressed. “But now we’ve got to get ready to go to New York City on Wednesday, understand what a difficult game that is going to be, and be ready to go after it again.”