TORONTO – Big players step up in big games.
It what they do; it is what is required of them.
And for Toronto FC there are no bigger games than those against the Montreal Impact.
For this week’s Match of the Week, the mind is cast back to last summer and a July 13 meeting between the two rivals.
Quentin Westberg recently, speaking about the MLS Cup Playoffs extra time rampage against D.C. United, highlighted this game as being one of the signposts along the way to the final.
Heading in, TFC were still finding themselves.
After the turbulence of the offseason, the club needed to rebuild on the go – Westberg himself joined in February. Alejandro Pozuelo’s protracted transfer saga concluded in March, Richie Laryea signed shortly thereafter.
Jacob Shaffelburg came on board in June, but then with a series of July additions – Omar Gonzalez, Erickson Gallardo, and Patrick Mullins, as well as Nicolas Benezet on loan – TFC were finally the group that would see out the campaign.
19 games into the schedule, TFC sat in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, but with the Concacaf Gold Cup over and the full complement back in town, this match marked the true start of the second half of the season.
And so it should have come as no surprise that Pozuelo opened the scoring and Jozy Altidore, who never passes up a chance to score on the Impact, added the coup de grace – his seventh goal in 11 MLS matches against Montreal.
But perhaps more impactful for the race to the playoffs was the addition of Gonzalez into the middle of the back-line.
At the time, Gonzalez relished making his debut by dipping his toes directly into the atmosphere of a derby, saying he could think of no better way to get started.
On Thursday’s edition of Footy Talks Live, he reflected on the experience: “It was a bit crazy: my first game was our biggest rivals.”
“It's a game where I knew it was going to be hard, it was going to be tough, everyone's going to be getting into challenges and being your first game you want to have a good game,” he continued. “It's not comfortable, you're not playing at home, but we figured it out.”
His quick introduction to the marvels to Toronto-Montreal was spurred by the stories of the past.
“Before the game they showed us videos about all the fans, all the songs, and some of the history between the two clubs, so I was able to get really into it and know what I was getting myself into,” said Gonzalez. “That really helped.”
Just another element of the clear task that the staff and his teammates laid before the new addition.
“The initial conversations with Greg Vanney, with Michael [Bradley] – he’s always in my ear about what he wants to do and what I need to bring to the table to help out the team – were very helpful to know how to get my mind frame right,” explained Gonzalez. “What the club needed was help in the back, a leader in the back.”
“And so heading into my first game that's the player who I needed to become: a leader back there, helping everyone along, being organized,” he continued. “As a whole, we did a pretty good job. I had only trained for a week before playing in that first game. The nice thing is I was getting thrown into an already developed, mature, fine-tuned team. This team has done a lot of amazing things together. They know Greg’s system. I had to play a little bit of catch up, but I have great players around me, so that made it that much more easy. I just had to focus on being me and knowing what I could bring to the table, so that's what I did.”
2019 was a slow-burn of a season. Much was uncertain heading in.
From the offseason departures of Tim Bezbatchenko, Sebastian Giovinco, and Victor Vazquez, the lengthy acquisition of Pozuelo, the timing of Gonzalez’ arrival – the spring transfer window closed too soon and he was forced to wait until summer – and then the Gold Cup stripping away several key players.
It was a matter of being in position to strike when it all came together.
Sometimes waiting is the hardest part. More often than not it is worth it.
“[I] had to wait to get signed and go to Gold Cup so I wasn’t still able to join the team,” recalled Gonzalez. “To be officially signed and watching from the Gold Cup was crazy because I had Michael and Jozy there talking to me about everything.”
There was another signpost game at the end of June, a 3-2 win against Atlanta Untied FC without Altidore, Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio. A draw against in-form D.C. would follow.
“To see [the team] holding it down, still getting results, was great,” said the defender. “I knew that I was heading to a team that was deep, that was hungry, that was competitive, that could be able to get results without some of their best players, so I was excited to join.”
“And then when the day came against Montreal and I got to start I was extremely happy, extremely excited, just to be back in the league, and then to be with Toronto, who I was following closely for a long time while in Mexico,” he added. “That day was incredible, just to be able to play away from home and get the result we needed to propel us on this run to MLS Cup.”