TORONTO – When the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs got underway last October, there was much at stake.
It was not just the possibility of advancing to the next round in search of silverware and glory, but legacy was on the line. And as fate would have it, that night two newcomers, Richie Laryea and Quentin Westberg, etched their names in the history of the club.
This week’s Match of the Week looks back at a recent classic: TFC’s 5-1 first round post-season win over D.C. United last year.
It was a good one.
“I remember telling guys that was some of the most fun I've ever had, ever in my life, on a football field,” recalled Laryea. “Because of the score people probably forget what kind of game it was. But this was the first game of the playoffs, finishing 5-1 with four of the goals coming in overtime. This is odd.”
“Once the goals came the game got even easier because they were forced to come out and step out and they got a guy sent off and they're kind of losing their head, but we're keeping ours and we're playing, keeping the ball,” he continued. “Those are the ideal situations you want to be in as a footballer: when you’ve got the total grip and dictation of the game. That's what we had – I think for the majority of the game, but very much so in the last 30 minutes. It was all TFC and it was extremely fun.”
Playoffs, regardless of the sport, are the pinnacle of competition. Yes, there is merit to which team is the best over the course of the season, but in the pressure on the field, mettle is tested in a different way.
For TFC that year, the build to those defining moments came slowly, built methodically throughout the year as the club looked to put a disastrous 2018 regular season behind them.
Bounced from the Concacaf Champions League early, Toronto would start strong with a series of three-straight wins and a draw, only to struggle through the first third of the campaign, enduring an eight-match winless spell between April and June.
An inflection point came later that month as the traditional summer grind began to come into view with a 3-2 win over Atlanta United FC, a reminder of what they were capable of. Then came an important win away to the Montreal Impact a few weeks later once the Gold Cup had wrapped up and players returned.
“From the moment guys got back from Gold Cup and we made a few signings we were really good, went on an undefeated run, 10 matches. It was perfect, right before the postseason,” said Laryea. “You hear coaches preach about it all the time: it's not really the way you the start the season, it’s about the way you end it.”
“We ended on a pretty high note, which took us into the playoffs pretty confident to try to go all the way and win it,” he continued. “That's what a lot of people saw from the summer on until the end, all the way up to the MLS Cup Final. It was a very tough, talented, resilient group that we had last season.”
Success is a process, according to Westberg, highlighting another such inflection point: when Toronto knocked the league-leaders off their perch.
“As a group, we started identifying our strengths. The LAFC game was one of these games, where we showed all of MLS a way to put this team in trouble, this team that was doing so well. That gave us a lot of confidence in the way that we went to that stadium and did well there. They got the equalizer on a penalty in the last minute, but it was some more strength that added on to our unbeaten streak.”
Above the playoff dividing line, Toronto had secured a berth, but where they would land, who they would play and where, was yet to be determined. The final day of the season would be pivotal.
“We weren't really playing for the streak, we were playing for our fundamentals and for our identity. We just built momentum throughout the season and the Columbus game, the last game, Decision Day, at kickoff we were sixth and at the end of the game we were fourth, and able to stage a home game in the playoffs against D.C., a team that we knew was very good,” explained Westberg. “They were confident, obviously, but we were calm, calm and steady”
“D.C. was this make-or-break game. ‘Okay you made it to the playoffs, but what is it that we’ll remember from this season?’ D.C. was the game that allowed us to dream more, to show everyone basically that our run wasn't just steady, strong, well-coached, good individuals, it was a team effort,” he added. “And to be able to take it through the playoffs and to MLS Cup was a was a great statement.”
With a tweak to the post-season formula, Decision Day fell on October 6 and with the match against D.C. at BMO Field on October 19 there was a nearly two-week lead in to prepare.
Every player deals with the anticipation in different ways, depending on where they are in their careers and their personality, though it was a new experience for both recent additions.
For Laryea, “it was a whirlwind of emotions.”
“My first playoff game. Having been in Orlando for three years I didn't get to experience a playoff night, so to be able to experience one and it being at BMO.... The last time a playoff game was at BMO was the MLS Cup final in 2017, so there's a lot of hype around the game.”
“A lot of guys spoke about how good the atmosphere is, especially when playoffs come around, so my emotions were all over the place,” he recalled. “I had a bunch of family coming, a bunch of friends, my wife and my son coming to the game. So much went into preparation for the game. I felt like I was prepared, but also very anxious.”
Westberg noted and relished the stillness around the club, the air of expectation.
“It's the calm, but also the fact that everyone was buzzing inside,” he began. “In recent years, playoffs aren't such a big deal to TFC, the thing is winning and winning with a very clear plan.”
“It's fun to get ready for these games. As a player it's excitement. Playoffs are different. I've played in games where you're going to get either promoted or relegated, but it's through a championship format, a league format. The playoffs is something different. Even though I’ve been playing soccer a long time, in Europe there’s not a lot of ways to play a playoff game,” he continued. “A different perspective, but a very exciting one.”
“And it's also real fun to see what Greg [Vanney] has in shop for us, the way the staff and Greg gets us ready for games, finds ways for us to be better, to be more effective, and to hurt the opponent is always a great process,” he added. “And, of course, feeling that buzz and being able to stage a home playoff game was really important. We hadn't been in a position to have home turf advantage on a playoff game for a while, so we're happy and we knew that playing at BMO was something that was going to help us.”
Such moments reveal the essence. And while Westberg was admittedly excited to make his playoff debut, there was something else he observed about his new club.
“There’s something different and there's something exciting [about the playoffs], but the exciting part is that here was an environment that suited me very well. It wasn't ‘Oh, okay, well, we're in the playoffs, so whatever happens from here is just bonus. It's okay if we lose, then no big deal, we made the playoffs,’” he dismissed. “I'm relatively new to this league, but I feel [Toronto’s] is not the same environment to a lot of other clubs, where having their first playoff win or just making it to the second round, to the semifinals of the conference, was a huge deal.”
“This is where I really realized that the culture of winning and the culture of performing was at a different level at TFC and that was comfortable, as odd as it may seem, to me,” he continued. “This is the environment that I like: not just being happy with making the playoffs and home field advantage, but whatever happens on the Saturday night doesn't really matter: we're there and we're happy to be there. No, we were really getting ready for a war, getting ready to showcase our strength.”
The disappointments of 2018, the blip, lingered in the air. It demanded a response.
“It was a very interesting season,” said the goalkeeper of last year. “When you get to the club early 2019 like me and like quite a few other players, there was still the stigma of 2018. There's the history behind 2017-18 and the players that have lived through these years keep telling you about these years and the history and everyone at the club team keeps telling you about these years, but 2018 really hurt.”
“It was almost a topic you didn't want to even talk about,” he added. “So getting rid of 2018 was some kind of relief. This we could feel.”
Toronto would take the lead in the first half through Marky Delgado, calming some of the nerves, but the game is long, especially against a team with the talented offensive weapons that D.C. had on the field.
“He scored and I was like maybe we'll get another goal and we'll see the game out and whatnot,” hoped Laryea. “We were going against a good team. When you have the likes of [Wayne] Rooney, Lucho [Acosta], and other USMNT players, even when you're winning 1-0, you’ve got to think if the ball falls for Rooney at any point, he could very well finish it.”
“Q [Westberg] had two or three massive saves against Rooney that kept us at 1-0,” he added. “From those little flashes you see from guys like Rooney you know that a 1-0 lead in a playoff, it could get you a win, but it also could flip and it's 1-1 very easily.”
In big moments, a team needs their goalkeeper to be at his best and on that night, in the contest between keeper and striker, Westberg bested Rooney on several occasions.
“It’s massive,” said Laryea of Westberg’s heroics. “He had two back-to-back chances and if he scores one, who knows maybe he converts both and it’s now 2-1 D.C.”
“Massive. You've seen big performances from the goalkeepers here between Alex Bono and Q,” he continued. “It's incredible to have both those guys, incredible for them to be able to make such a big saves in such big moments.”
But then, as the clock slowly ticked down towards full time, D.C. would level through Lucas Rodriguez on a broken play in stoppage-time, setting up 30 more minutes of extra time.
“Initial thoughts,” began Laryea. “Anyone can see from watching that goal go in, everyone on our team looks disappointed, but the greatest thing about this club and the organization, of the players and the leadership that's on the field, as soon as we huddled up, between Greg and the assistant coaches and Mike [Bradley] and [Jonathan] Osorio, it wasn’t feeling sorry for ourselves.”
“Obviously, a lot of language I won't repeat,” he laughed. “But guys were fired up: ‘Let's go, we'll smash these guys now. They took it away from us late, let’s go give it to them.’ It gave me and the rest of the group a sense of ‘okay, let's go back out and let's do this. We're playing better than them, we're the better team, let's go show them in these 30 minutes.’”
Momentum can be decisive on such occasions. The pitch can tilt with those winds; if a team lets it.
“If I'm watching a game with this scenario, I'm thinking, ‘Okay, wow, the momentum just switched in a big, big way.’ But from the field, we weren't alarmed,” explained Westberg. “We were disappointed, for sure. We were mad in a way, but everybody contained it. Let's protect ourselves and still be strong and get out there and show that we're the stronger team.”
“Despite their chances we still had more than them. We were creating a lot for ourselves, so we were doing what we were expecting to be doing. By attitude we were able not to [let momentum] shift too much towards D.C. You would think that scoring a late equalizer and going into overtime would be to the advantage of the team that just matched up, but the next few minutes proved the opposite,” Westberg recalled. “This is what gave us the most strength going into that run in the playoffs. That moment, knowing we had something to prove and that we were able not to score one, two, but four goals in a 10-minute period.”
“I almost think now looking back, and right after the game that was my thought, that we were better off winning this way at BMO, knowing it was our last game at home, leaving this print on our last game,” he added. “It was such a great moment to share with our fans, with our supporters. As a keeper I would have much rather have won the game 1-0 and kept the clean-sheet, but ultimately when I look back at the story of the year, at the involvement of everyone, and seeing everyone that scored that night, I think it was a good reward for both our fans and for our team to leave on such a high note.”
Toronto wasted no time in responding to that disappointment.
Three minutes after the restart, victory was all but sealed. And before the first half of the 30 minutes was done, it was well over.
Though Nick DeLeon’s curler may have been the prettiest – against his old club no less – according to Westberg, and Osorio’s two were nice, it was the first that mattered most.
“Richie’s was really important because it's minutes in and it’s almost like now we were 12 against 11. We had the whole stadium going with us,” recalled the keeper. “I was lucky enough to have it behind me, so I was feeling like a wave behind me. It was pretty exciting.”
The 6ix on a wave. There is something familiar about that.
And for a hometown guy to score it, the narrative writes itself.
“A ball that I had actually lost,” began Laryea. “Marky picked it up, gave it to Mike. Mike had a really nice turn, which had him facing forward and he picked out a brilliant pass to Nick DeLeon. And then Nick – I always say I did the easy part – Nick was able to control it and play a perfectly timed ball for me streaking in.”
“And then I remember taking the touch, looking up, like, ‘Oh shoot, I'm pretty close to the goal here, let me try to have a go,” he continued. “I saw that the near-post was empty, [the goalkeeper] was coming out big, but leaving some spaces, so I snuck it in. That triggered a domino effect for us throughout the rest of the game.”
It is not chance that put Laryea in that position.
“It's no luck; it's the fruit of a lot of work. A good amount of humility also,” pointed out Westberg. “Am I starting? Am I not? I'm tiptoeing my way into a team. We were almost in the same position earlier and this is a conversation that we had more than once. When he signed with the club in February I had just signed also and we were there the Sunday mornings, doing the four-v-fours after the stars were regenerating.”
“Richie was one of these guys that never gave up, he was 100%, he didn't take any practice for granted. I've told him multiple times throughout the year – not that I have the absolute [wisdom] in this: don't believe it's luck, don't believe that happens to you because you're getting lucky,” explained the veteran. “In the same way, Tsubasa [Endoh] against Atlanta. Same thing: Jacob Shaffelburg getting an assist in his first MLS start. These are a little signs that you are working well as an individual and that you're working in a good collective, that you're well-guided by our staff and by our veteran players. It's a little chemistry or balance thing. That is not due to luck to my mind.”
“The only thing I told Richie was it’s not luck man,” revealed Westberg. “It's a lot of commitment and a lot of behind the scenes, closed doors work; grind.”
Between Laryea, Osorio’s double, and DeLeon’s topper, it was a thorough defeat of D.C., left shell-shocked and shaken post-match.
“Yeah, Oso shoved the dagger in there. He had an incredible, incredible game. He was lights out. He's had many big nights at BMO, had another big one here,” said Laryea. “A very important game for this club in a season where maybe a lot of fans didn't really have a whole lot of belief in the group.”
“His performance and the team's performance, the goals that we scored, was a big statement. Not only across the league, in our conference and whatnot, but just even to show our fans that we mean business,” he reflected. “We could have felt sorry for ourselves and fell back and dragged around the field and then who knows. It was a good statement game for everyone to see.”
Playoffs require a little of that sang froid, something that percolated at TFC through the closing stretch of the regular season and came to the surface against D.C.
“It's just not being too excited after each game, not making a big deal of our 10 games unbeaten streak, just having faith, believing in our system, in our values, in our ability, in our soccer DNA also,” said Westberg. “That game was the opposition of two very, very different styles. D.C. was basically relying on a very solid defense. They had conceded very few goals throughout the season, they had an amazing amount of shutouts. We were more attacking-minded, possession-based, creative against a very solid [opponent], relying on individual spark up top with guys like Rooney with guys like [Kei] Kamara or Acosta.”
“Being able to score five goals on probably the best defense in MLS was a statement and also a good description of what we did well and great for our general philosophy as an ensemble,” he added. “To be rewarded for daring, for our bravery into taking action, and moving forward and trying to create chances and scoring five goals on them that night, was a good statement of ‘We believe in that kind of soccer,’ and I'm really happy that it worked.”
What would follow is still fresh in the memory – gritty, gutsy wins away to NYCFC and Atlanta, the supposed class of the Eastern Conference – leading to another MLS Cup Final against Seattle Sounders FC. And though that match brought fresh wounds, the old ones evaporated.
“This game [against D.C.] definitely put 2018 away. It erased it. We won in front of our home crowd, now we're going to need to go on the road, beat the best teams in MLS to actually enjoy our moment, enjoy our season, and it came up to one day,” said Westberg, referring to the final. “I think D.C. was one of the turning points, a very good trigger to a great playoff run. There were a couple of turning points like this and D.C. for sure was a big, big boost in our season.”
Not just the win, but how it was won.
“Although it stressed out us and the fans, going into overtime was the best thing that could have happened to us in that very moment,” said Laryea. “After those 30 minutes we realized what we had in ourselves. We didn’t have Jozy [Altidore] on the field, Omar [Gonzalez] was injured. We saw what we have in us.”
Much like a previous Match of the Week, the big shorthanded win over Columbus Crew SC helped spur the team on in 2017, this did the same.
“A lot of the guys played 120 minutes that game, not great for the body, but shows that guys are able and willing to go to different limits to get wins,” concluded Laryea. “That carried into the New York City game, carried to the Atlanta game, and then even to Seattle, where we played well. The D.C. game helped us a lot.”