Toronto FC are returning to the MLS Cup Final for the third time in four years.
The Reds booked a spot in the final on November 10 with a 2-1 win over Atlanta United FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday night.
Julian Gressel put the home side ahead after just four minutes when Pity Martinez got behind the TFC back-line and unselfishly squared for an open-netter. Martinez appeared to win his side a second in the 8th minute when he went down in the area under pressure from Michael Bradley, but Quentin Westberg had other plans, getting a hand to Josef Martinez’s penalty kick.
A few minutes later Nicolas Benezet had Toronto level when he cut in-field from the left and picked out the far bottom corner of the Atlanta net, beating Brad Guzan with a dipping effort.
After that came the battle.
For the next hour-plus, Atlanta were on the front foot, but it was TFC, come the 78th minute when Nick DeLeon, who replaced Benezet shortly after half-time, found the winner placing a curling right-footed effort into the top corner after it appeared the attack had fizzled.
For Greg Vanney, the night was a microcosm of TFC’s season.
“Early we battled, went through midseason, keep our head above water, got our team back together and have been on a run,” reflected the coach. ‘Tonight, it was similar: we were missing a couple guys, but the group that was out there, that nobody outside of our club thought could maybe get it done – except for our fans – went and like true champions found a way to get it done.”
“We played with heart, we played with grit, real character, resilience, made plays, went down one really fast, had to come up with an incredible save by Q on the PK to keep us in it, and then scored two incredible goals,” recounted Vanney. “Sometimes on the road, in a one-off game, you’ve just got to come up with ways and that’s what great teams do.”
To give up the opening goal after four minutes and a chance at a second shortly thereafter was not an auspicious start to the Eastern Conference Final.
“We got ourselves overaggressive and payed for it,” explained Vanney. “We had to recalibrate and it became a night when we weren’t going to have much of the ball, that became fairly evident. We had to pick and choose our moments.”
“I wouldn’t say it was perfect by any stretch, but we managed situations as they came as us, kept ourselves in it, kept ourselves around it,” he added. “We did that for large stretches of the game.”
The game is made of moments, both entirely individual and infinitely tied to each other.
Westberg staring down the penalty kick was a big one.
“It’s a big save,” levelled Michael Bradley. “Quentin’s ability to make saves for us in key moments has been incredible.”
But even had Martinez scored instead, the TFC captain refused to allow that the match would have been over.
“If this, if that,” dismissed Bradley. “That’s why you play the game.”
The next moment was one of sheer class. Laurent Ciman hit an inch-perfect cross-field ball to Benezet on the left. He worked in, backed off his marker before ducking inside to quickly hit a shaped ball towards the far-post.
Atlanta were slow to react and TFC were level.
The ensuing hour was anything but pretty.
“I can be ideological about how I want the game to look and how I want the team to play,” said Vanney. “From [that] perspective, that is not what I wanted the game to look like, obviously.”
“But from a practical perspective, what our players did today, they deserved it. That’s real,” he stressed. “From a soccer perspective we probably didn’t win many categories except for one, which was 2-1 on the scoreboard.”
It was DeLeon who came on and found a way to make the difference.
“He’s done it for us all year,” said Vanney. “He’s a guy who has been around this league for years and years, he has a mentality to grind, but also an ability to make opportunities – sometimes on his own, sometimes within the structure of the group.”
“He’s earned all of the respect he gets. He’s been a big part of our team,” he continued. “Right now we’ve used him as a super-sub, Richie [Laryea] the same way, because when teams are tired – and I can’t say that [Atlanta] were because they had a lot of the ball – but when teams are under it, the guys who want to get out and run at you, take people on, are tough to manage. He gave us that tonight; he’s given it to us all year.”
Added Bradley: “Nick has been such an important guy for us. Whether he’s a starter, whether he’s a reserve, he is all about the group and you can never have enough of these guys.”
It was DeLeon’s second goal of the playoffs after his screamer against his old club, D.C. United.
“They didn’t step, so I just decided to have a hit and [was] fortunate enough to go in,” said DeLeon. “Definitely favourite goal of all-time, so far.”
When the final whistle blew, Atlanta could be justified in feeling hard done by – it is a cruel game sometimes – but only one team is moving on to the MLS Cup Final.
“You can win games in different ways,” said Vanney. “Tonight we didn’t win it with the ball, which is something we’ve been able to do a little bit more. That’s not typically our strength, but clearly we’ve built some resilience through this stretch of games where we found a way.”
Unbeaten since the start of August, a span of 13 matches in MLS play, Toronto will celebrate lifting this trophy.
“It feels great,” beamed Westberg. “Sharing these moments with these guys, that’s the best feeling.”
“As much as we can all hope for our own little thing there’s nothing better than winning as a team,” he continued. “We showed a lot of resiliency throughout the year and during these playoffs everything comes to prove that we’re a great group. We merged late, but we’re solid. Everybody has got each other’s back. Sharing, that’s the most important.”
“It was a hard game for us. We didn’t create, we weren’t in their half of the field,” explained the goalkeeper. “But we were there enough to be lethal. And to be, once again, celebrating.”
And another trophy awaits, though a familiar foe, Seattle Sounders FC, stands in the way.
“We have one more to go, but we are going to enjoy this one, probably tonight and tomorrow,” said DeLeon. “And then we will focus on Seattle.”
Grinned Bradley, denied a shot at Bob Bradly’s LAFC by the Sounders 3-1 win the night before: “Wild, wild. With all due respect for Seattle, I was rooting for the other team last night pretty hard. The fact that it plays out in Toronto-Seattle for the third time in four years should make for an interesting day.”