The MLS is Back Tournament ended last night for Toronto FC.
Jesus Medina opened the scoring after five minutes, Valentin Castellanos added the second in the 55th minute, and Maxi Moralez sealed victory for NYCFC in the final ten minutes of regulation. Substitute Patrick Mullins pulled one back for TFC in the 87th minute, but it was not enough.
Where NYCFC were quick out of the starting gates, TFC were not.
“Everything for us was too slow, the tempo of the game too slow,” began Greg Vanney post-match. “It lacked urgency; it lacked intensity.”
“The ball movement was too slow, too much dwelling, too many touches. It wasn't what I would define as the best version of what we're trying to do and what we're trying to be,” he continued. “And in a knockout if you're like that on one night you're out and you go home. Tonight that's what happened. They were better than us. And they deserved to win and we go home.”
The opening passages of play were indicative of how the night would go.
“We started the game very poorly and never really.... We got ourselves going a little bit at the end of the first half, but just in all ways weren't good enough tonight,” explained Michael Bradley. “That part is pretty simple. There's not much more to say.”
“You play these knockout games and you know things are going to be tight, you know every part of the game is so important,” he added. “We got off to a really bad start and from there we never really found a good way in the game. Pretty simple.”
After a difficult group stage that nearly sent them packing early, TFC knew NYCFC were eager to make amends.
“No, no surprise,” replied Bradley at the ferocious start. “It's a good team and when you play these knockout games you understand that both teams are going to try to go after it. They were aggressive and tried to step up and close us down and we couldn't find the right ways to put the game on our terms.”
The desire was there, but the tanks were empty.
“The guys have grinded, it's not been easy,” said Vanney of navigating the competition. “I don't think anyone didn't want to win; I don't think anyone was giving up mentally.”
“Guys are fatigued, guys are tired, but we could have dug down a little deeper and played better,” he continued. “If we play better then some of those things start to feel better. But we were inefficient with the ball, which meant we ran more. We turned over balls in bad places, which meant we had to transition defend, and it starts to wear on you.”
“That was the case for today,” he added. “The games wore on us and we weren't good enough and because of that we had to do more work.”
Having been knocked out of the playoffs twice by Toronto, Ronny Delia’s side earned their victory on the night, exacting a measure of revenge. The next clash between the two should be fascinating.
For now, though, TFC must lick their wounds and come home.
“We never made excuses along the way and we're not going to start now,” stressed Bradley. “When you play a big game and not enough guys have good games on the night then the bar is going to tilt pretty heavily in their favour.”
“We're honest enough with ourselves to understand that we just weren't good enough,” he continued. “We've got to now get ourselves back and recover a little bit from this tournament, but continue to train and continue to work because there's more games coming.”
One bright spot from the night was the performance of 17-year-old attacker Jayden Nelson, who made his MLS debut with the start. Another was the return of Jonathan Osorio.
With the aim of a regular season continuing in some form following the completion of the tournament, Toronto will take their lessons and shift the focus to readying for what comes next.
“We need to work on what we're trying to do, continue to build on our platform of the principles that we play on, the shape that we need to be in, the individuals responsibilities, and guys need to perform within their roles – that's the individual and collective look,” detailed Vanney. “I saw in the guys' faces before the game they wanted to win. It just didn’t come together tonight.”
Though what lies ahead is unclear, points from the group stage matches will count in the regular season's standings: Toronto sits in second place in the East on nine points from five matches.
Something to take away from the experience.
“We picked up five points and we have four games under our belt,” summed up Bradley. “After a long layoff the games are so important. Everybody was training, but without any real ability to play games other than some inner squad type stuff. And so when you come here and get four games, four 90 minutes under your belt, that part is really important.”
“We'll recover mentally and physically and then make sure that we're ready to continue to push things in training over this next stretch so that we're ready for whatever comes next.”
Concluded Vanney: “Pleased that we took five points out of it – that keeps us right towards the top of the Eastern Conference. 15 games unbeaten in regular season play – I'll take that.”
“We're going to continue to build off of that,” he continued. “We're getting guys towards fitness, we're getting guys more healthy. We have a guy like Ayo [Akinola] who has a breakout tournament, shows that he can play in this league and score goals in this league, which is nice. And we see some more young guys.”
“This is the beginning of the year,” he added. “Of course we wanted to win it, but it's also about information and about growing as a group. And sometimes it's about being humbled and seeing where you still need to get better. That's part of the process that every season is about. We'll try to grow and get better out of this. That's our intention and that is our expectation.”