Wheeler's Insider | October 23

Wheeler’s Insider | The Captain Speaks, Memories of 2016, and Diamond Days

Four goals in 13 minutes of extra time. It happened. It was real.  And it was spectacular.

Toronto FC’s four goal explosion, mere moments after conceding and heading to extra time in their first round 2019 MLS Cup Playoff matchup against DC United, is something you’ll most likely not ever see again. Four goals in extra time, let alone that quickly in succession, simply doesn’t happen. Not with this team. And not in games at this level. What was shaping out to be a professional 1-0 win, turned into a historic, emphatic and you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 5-1 win over DC United. And Toronto is still buzzing.

30 extra minutes of soccer is typical a tense, cagey exercise of who can outlast who. Since MLS changed from a golden goal extra time format, no team has scored four times over the addition 30 minutes. Not until now. And your record breaking Reds join the MLS history books yet again. It took Toronto FC less than three minutes to score, two more minutes to add another, and by the end of the first half of the overtime period, the match was settled, and Toronto FC was moving on.

If a mercy rule was ever contemplated, use Saturday as Exhibit A. And while team’s will always prefer to settle affairs during the 90, what could have gone down as a professional first round victory turned into a galvanizing goal-fest; the kind of win that tends to inspire even bigger and better things. If you believe in momentum, then perhaps a win like that, with those emotions, and belief through overcoming adversity will serve well heading to New York City FC  Wednesday night (7pm ET, TSN).

Saturday’s dramatics brought back memories of the second leg of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. A big game, under the bright lights of BMO, with twists and turns, and a spectacular finish. It was almost three yers ago, and after an exhilarating 180 minutes against the Montreal Impact, two goals in two minutes courtesy of Benoit Cheyrou and Tosaint Ricketts ensured TFC would move on to their first ever MLS Cup Final, in arguably the best game ever player played at BMO.  Saturday’s game will make the top 5 ever played at BMO, but the extra time heroics of three years ago cast a shadow.

The memories were ripe for those on the field on both occasions. Jonathan Osorio, who scored an extra time brace Saturday, told me the way it played out reminded him of that late November night in 2016, only this time “it just kept on getting better and better.”  Two goals better, to be exact.

Head Coach Greg Vanney told me he actually watched the Montreal game earlier in the week, with the 2016 playoff game just happening to be on TV. Vanney smiled ear to ear, admitting a similar feel and sequence of events. The universe works in peculiar ways from time to time. 

Defender Drew Moor put it best, saying “It’s never boring at this club.”  It certainly isn’t.  Full credit to the team for showing the resolve to respond to conceding late. Most teams would fold, overcome by the pressure and the shock of the tides turning on a dime. But not this group. There is experience, leadership and belief in this team. TFC has now matched its longest unbeaten run in club history at 11 straight without a loss.

I asked Captain Michael Bradley what he said to the group before extra time. I watched on during the break, and Bradley was particularly vocal. He couldn’t remember word for word what he said. The precise words weren’t important; having his voice heard, to reinforce and to reenergize is what was most critical.

“Sometimes as a leader, you don’t have to say anything at all. This wasn’t one of those times,” explained Bradley. “After 90 minutes, we’re all tired, and after giving up that goal, I needed to get the energy up back up in the group. I needed eye contact. I needed to get heads up, positive body language. It was about was about getting us refocussed quick, getting the belief back and making sure we were ready.” 

Bradley taking the lead allowed Vanney time to figure out how to line up his group, with a late change bringing on Moor for Auro Jr meant a change in formation. Vanney tinkered while giving a simple message to remain aggressive, reinforcing Bradley’s rally-cry.

Bradley tells me there was so much comfort and confidence in the team, despite conceding late. He need look no further than his midfield partners in Osorio and Marky Delgado. All three have been at the club during these glory years, and understand what is needed to win big games. There’s a familiarity between the three, and it’s no coincidence this recent run of hot form has seen the trio reunited in the middle of the park. Bradley is full of praise of his running-mates, believing they are on the same page and the positive chemistry gives them a clear advantage, no matter who they play.

And it’s not just the group in the midfield. A core group of players that have won together before remain. Moor, Tsubasa Endoh, Justin Morrow were all on the field late, and have all been part of the team over the last 4 seasons. Chris Mavinga as well, joining TFC in the Championship year. The mentality is there, on what they need to sacrifice to win. And the voices go beyond the field of play. Jozy Altidore, Alex Bono, Ashtone Morgan, Eriq Zavaleta, and Jay Chapman make up a leadership group, all voices important in pushing this group forward based on experience, no matter if they are on the field or off.

Wednesday is another occasion for this veteran group to turn back the clock to instill confidence ahead of another big playoff matchup. 2016 was also the season of their famous 5-0 demolition job of NYCFC at Yankee Stadium in the second leg of a second round playoff tie. Toronto FC took a 2-0 aggregate lead to New York with them, before playing the Cityzens off the field in the return leg. Bradley admits that game will serve as a reference point Wednesday for some, while newer and more recent additions to the team will turn to this season’s resounding performances against NYCFC for inspiration. TFC posted a 4-0 win in Alejandro Pozuelo’s debut at home against New York back in March. And more recently, a late Pozuelo penalty miss cost TFC the full three points at NYCFC in a 1-1 draw on September 11. It’s an away game the Reds firmly believe they played better than the top team in the East, and a game they believe they deserved to win. They know they match-up well against a very good team, but a team they will be confident they can come away with a result.

The quick turn-around from weekend to mid-week isn’t ideal. Neither is playing a do-or-die game against a team coming in fresh on 17 days of rest. Altidore (quad) and Omar Gonzalez (hamstring) as game-time injury decisions is a tough one as well. But the collective memory of an electrifying win last time out, for an in-form team with leaders who are tried, tested and proven, bodes well against a team who they’ve had recent and past success. Whether it be straight-forward or another topsy-turvy night, TFC is just 90+ minutes of soccer on a baseball diamond away from making it back to a wide-open Eastern Conference Final.

There’s No Place at Home

It was be a similar, yet different viewing experience for those watching from home Wednesday. NYCFC home field will be a baseball field, but not the one you’re used to seeing. The game was moved to Citi Field, the home of the cross-town Mets, rather than Yankee Stadium. The game was moved with the club not knowing whether the Yankees would be still alive playoff baseball. They are not, yet the game stays in Flushing Meadows. The dimensions of the field will be virtually similar, but the field will not be.

It’s a no-win scenario playing this game at Citi Field. It’s hardly just rewards for New York; go out and win the Eastern Conference and you can’t even have actual home field advantage for your first playoff game? Doesn’t seem right, or fair. A home field game away from home is hardly an advantage at all. And the viewing and playing surface will surely be subpar. The baseball diamond dirt outline is a mess, and the sightlines inside the stadium are pragmatic at best. For a marquee match, with the eyes of the league on this game, and two top teams doing battle, the state of affairs is borderline unacceptable.

MLS has come a long way over the years. New and emerging markets have been smash-successes, expansion is on the boom, play on the field as good as it’s been, and the entertainment value is on the rise. But a few not-good enough stadiums and surfaces continue to frustrate top professionals and supporters of this league. A playoff game of this magnitude should not be playing on this surface and this kind of stadium, for the good of the game. Make no mistake, the league and NYCFC have, and continue to work tirelessly to build a proper home for an otherwise successful club, But until then, they will lack the panache, character and credibility of other giants in MLS.  Let’s hope the game endures despite the surroundings.

Around the Wheeler

  • The bigger the game gets, the more Jonathan Osorio shines. With his two goals Saturday, Osorio now has four in thirteen MLS Cup Playoff games. The positive goal returns stay true for all Cup Competitions. He has four goals in 10 CONCACAF Champions League games, and five goals in 22 Canadian Championship matches.
  • It was worrying seeing Marky Delgado reach for his hamstring in extra time on the weekend. He assured me Monday it was nothing more than cramping. The cramping started at the front of his leg, and went to the back of his thigh during the second 15 minutes of extra time. Delgado tells me he tried to stay out of the way, moving over to the right with the game well in hand. Unfortunately for Marky, the ball kept coming his way so he kept running and stay involved in the play. He can laugh about it now, knowing nothing was wrong, and outside of some bumps and bruises is good to go for Wednesday. No TFC player has played more minutes or done as much hard running on the season. He and his legs are needed. 
  • It’s a small sample size, but TFC is 2-0 in playoff games in New York with seven goals for and just one against.
  • TFC is on a six-match unbeaten run away from home in MLS play. Only problem is five of the games ended in a draw.
  • TFC has a 4-4-5 all-time record against NYCFC.
  • Alejandro Pozuelo gave TFC something completely different leading the line as a ‘9’. It’s very rare a player up top leads a team in touches. Pozuelo did just that, having a game-high 105 touches against DC. He also had four more chances created (9) than any other player, and had the second most passes completed (72) at an impressive 84.7% completion rate.
  • Some big statistics for TFC in extra time vs. the 90 minutes: 12 of 28 shots, 9 of 17 on target, and 8 of 15 shots from inside the box came in extra time.
  • 2018: Nick DeLeon scores for DC United in spectacular fashion in 1st round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. 2019: DeLeon scores against DC United in spectacular fashion in 1st round of the MLS Cup Playoffs
  • 1: Richie Laryea and Marky Delgado each matched their season goal-scoring total. It took them two combined playoff games to provide the same goal-scoring output that took 50 combined games during the regular season.