Greg Vanney summed up Toronto FC’s latest MLS Cup Playoffs performance succinctly: “It was outstanding.”
The Reds moved on to the Eastern Conference Final with a 2-1 win over NYCFC, the top seed in the East, at Citi Field on Wednesday night with Alejandro Pozuelo scoring both goals.
Toronto were all over New York City in the opening 45 minutes.
“We wanted to eliminate any time that they had on the ball; we put a lot into the first half,” said Vanney post-match. “It’s a small field, we were pressing them, we were making it difficult, we were winning balls, we were attacking. The only thing that didn’t come out of the first half was a lead, but in every other aspect we just dominated it.”
“Second half started out okay and then they rotated into a diamond, so our match-ups started to get a little mixed. It took us a few minutes – and we end up giving up a goal – to really get that reorganized. Just before we brought on Richie [Laryea] it settled down again,” observed the coach. “The guys just battled through the moments that weren’t perfect. The mentality is really strong with this team, the work rate is really strong; the quality is there, they believe in themselves, and anything is possible when all those things fit together.”
Added Laryea: “This team doesn’t care, man. We’re resilient. All the guys are hungry to prove why we are the team that we are.”
“[Jonathan] Oso[rio] said it: it doesn’t matter about the rest, we’ll be ready for the game and we were.”
On short rest following 120 minutes against D.C. United in Round One on Saturday, where TFC emerged victorious by a 5-1 scoreline after extra time, and without the services of Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, the latter of whom was on the bench, Toronto was on the front foot through the opening half.
“We know before the game we had options to beat this team,” said Pozuelo. “They try to play good football and we showed from the first minute. We have very good options in the first half to go 1-0, but the keeper [made good] saves, so we continued. The second half, a little bit more difficult because they tried to push, but we know we had to wait a little because we have options to score.”
Pozuelo himself, as it turned out, was that option, pouncing on bad defensive play, an under-hit back-header from Maxime Chanot, to slot the opener past NYCFC’s Sean Johnson in the 47th minute
"It was a mistake for the defense,” said Pozuelo. “He tried to play to the keeper, the keeper stayed a little bit, and we tried to press and finally we scored."
Staring down elimination, the home side reinforced with the addition of top-scorer Heber and took the game up a notch, putting Toronto under sustained pressure.
NYCFC would pull level in the 69th minute through Ismael Tajouri-Shradi with a half-volley at the back-post when Maxi Moralez was able to get a cross in from a quick throw-in.
Vanney countered, bringing on Patrick Mullins to provide an outlet, that, as well as the earlier introduction of Nick DeLeon’s fresh legs and some positional tinkering, quelled some of the pressure, but it was the introduction of Laryea in the 78th minute that proved the masterstroke.
“I just came in looking to bring a spark and help change the game,” said Laryea afterwards. “The guys fought really hard for 80 minutes I had to do my part.”
His part was getting past his man to surge into the area and win a penalty kick in the 88th minute when he was brought down by Ronald Matarrita.
“So elusive on the ball. When guys are tired, he’s a disaster to have to deal with,” said Vanney. “He did what he has done so many times this year: eliminate guys, drive to the end-line, get himself in position to cross. Their guy chose to try to win the ball and that was that.”
The responsibility of the last-minute penalty kick fell on Pozuelo, who has devastated NYCFC this season.
The Spanish attacker made his debut in March, a 4-0 TFC win, scoring twice – a Panenka from the penalty spot and a delicious chip/lob from the top of the box. In September, he scored another from the spot, but was denied a last-minute winner by Johnson.
“I don’t know.” smiled Pozuelo, asked why he seems to love playing New York.
The calculations and counter-calculations that go into a penalty kick were evident, Pozuelo taking his fourth against Johnson.
"The keeper knows [me],” leveled Pozuelo. “I knew if I [got] a penalty, I [would] shoot in the middle because in this minute, he cannot stay in the middle. 2-1, very good result. We are very happy."
Added Vanney: “Johnson has seen a lot of him. [Pozuelo] had one saved last game, I think that set him up to go down the middle: it’s late in the game, it’s tough for [Johnson] to stand in the goal.”
“It’s a gutsy play by Poz, but he was great on the night,” he continued. “Held up the ball for us, he brought people into the play, he moved around, he fought for things, he helped lead us defensively, he was great.”
Another night, another brace against NYCFC for Pozuelo.
“His ability in the attacking part of the field to make plays is amazing,” said Bradley. “Tonight, when things are going a million miles an hour, you need him to be able to slow down and have the composure to make plays that make the difference, he can do that.”
The side will now have a week to prepare for whoever emerges from the other Eastern Conference Semi, be it Atlanta United FC or the Philadelphia Union.
“The mentality to understand what the game was going to be about, to just go for it, to lay everything we had on the field, that part was incredible,” encapsulated Bradley. “In the first half we were on top of the game in every way. Aside from a play or two, they could barely get in our end. It's a shame we didn't have something to show for ourselves at the end of the half.”
“We have a good start to the second half, get the goal. On one hand, disappointing to then drop and let them get back into the game, but it's also the makeup of the playoffs,” continued the captain. “When it’s single elimination, at that point they’ve got 35 minutes left in their season. There is no measured approach from them. They’re going to put on as many attacking guys as they can and go for it.”
“Maybe we can deal with things better, try to be a little more aggressive, but when they’re throwing everything in the game, you give credit to them in that moment. We could have done a little bit better on goal, but at that point, the mentality, the commitment, the understanding from every guy on the field how to just keep going, keep playing, knowing that we’d still find chances. That part was amazing,” he concluded. “We have played on as many big days in the last few years as any team in this league and we have guys who understand what these night are about and it showed."