The 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs began and ended for Toronto FC on Tuesday night.
Expansion side Nashville SC upset the number two seed in the Eastern Conference with a 1-0 win at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut after 120 minutes of play, sending TFC home, ending a year unlike any other.
It was a cagey match with Nashville defending fiercely and breaking quickly. Toronto had their share of half-chances, but were not able to break the deadlock. The offside flag cancelled the first three times the visitors had the ball in the net, but come the 108th minute a Hany Mukhtar shot was saved by Quentin Westberg, only for substitute Daniel Rios to tap in the rebound from close range.
Gary Smith’s side move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals and Greg Vanney’s goes home.
“We got a little bit of what we anticipated: a well-organized, defensive team, who is committed to keeping their lines nice and tight,” assessed the TFC coach post-match. “They have a lot of experience, MLS experience, in their group and they stayed disciplined through the course of the match. They had the big fella [Jhonder Cadiz] up top who won almost every single ball that they played forward and was able to keep attacks alive, connect people, and move them into our half the field.”
“Our biggest challenge on the night was just everything was too slow,” Vanney continued. “Against a team that's so committed to recovering back behind the ball, whenever we broke lines or we were in good spots and we were able to put the pass in between the lines, we didn't then attack the next line fast enough.”
“It was too slow,” he added. “We were looking for passes that weren't quite there, [we] needed to receive it with the idea of driving at the next line and trying to create the next attacking scenario. If you don't do that fast enough that little edge that you get, against a team like them, then they just recover back under the ball and they make it very difficult for you to create chances.”
“And then when we got in wide areas we didn't get service to where we needed; sometimes we didn't have the right numbers in the box. Having said that, we had a couple of good chances early where maybe if we get one maybe we settle in, we're not as stretched out,” Vanney concluded. “But in general I thought the game was too slow.”
That lack of edge in the final third had been a concern heading into the match.
Jozy Altidore and Pablo Piatti returned to the starting eleven from injury, but even their additions would not provide the solution.
“We, by and large, had decent control of the game, but we weren't able to really put them on their heels consistently enough,” concurred Michael Bradley. “We weren't able to really create situations of wave after wave of really being dangerous.”
“They're a team that understands who they are and what they're about and they don't give away a ton of balls and they don't give away a ton of chances,” he continued. “Having said that we were able to create a few big ones and when you're not able to take advantage, when you're not able to score, then they can continue to believe in what they're doing and the game hangs in the balance.”
“It turns into a game of who's going to make a play first,” Bradley summed up. “And so, yeah. Frustrating. Disappointing. But yeah, that's football sometimes.”
TFC has never shied away from shortcomings. The disappointments of MLS Cup defeats, the Concacaf Champions League finale, and 2018 have propelled the club forward. So too will this.
The result still fresh, a proper postmortem will follow in the coming days.
“It's never easy right after a game, right after a game that ends your season,” responded Bradley when asked what his message to his teammates was. “Over the next few hours, over the next day or two, we'll find the right ways to end this season and have the right discussions, talk through things, make sure that we're all on the same page.”
“But again, it's never easy in a moment like this,” he reiterated. “When you lose a game like that to end your season.”
The sting of defeat can overshadow what was a herculean effort from every single player in a year that offered myriad challenges. The stops and starts, the stripping of the comforts of home, the pandemic itself.
That should not be forgotten.
“Our guys put an incredible shift in over the course of the regular season,” reminded Vanney. “In the end, things caught up with us a little bit. Some of what you would call our top players, our guys that are difference makers, who are important to us in getting results in big games, were in and out with injuries, starting to come back in the tail end of the season. We lacked a little bit of fitness, we lacked a little bit of sharpness, a little bit of continuity at times tonight. That might have been part of why we were a little bit slow in some of our actions and didn't connect as fast as we normally would or would like to. That fluid combination play just wasn't as sharp.”
“We hit the tail end not firing on all cylinders,” he continued. “A little bit of the season catching up with us? That’s possible. The guys had the right attitude tonight, they wanted to come out and take the game, they knew what the challenge was in front of them, we just didn't execute and we didn't execute in the speed, and that's football, that happened to us tonight.”
“Our guys put in an incredible year and have sacrificed to get to where they are and to have the season that they had and I feel for them,” Vanney closed. “We just didn't do enough tonight to win the game.”
MLS Cup hopes may have ended prematurely, but 2020 should be remembered for, amongst everything, an earnest run at the Supporters’ Shield in the most bizarre of circumstances that went down to the wire. And with the Canadian Championship and a spot in the Concacaf Champions League still to be decided against Forge FC, winners of the Canadian Premier League’s Island Games, there may well be more left in the year.
Still, the hurt is real.
Since their first ever playoff appearance in 2015, which was ended by the Montreal Impact at the Play-In Round, TFC had gone to the final in the three post-seasons they’ve reached, winning one and losing two, all against the Seattle Sounders.
Every disappointment is different.
“It's been a while since we've felt this early in the playoff, but every loss, when you don't accomplish what you've set out to do, when you believe in your ability to do that, it hurts,” said Vanney. “And regardless of the struggles that go through every season – this year of special struggles – anytime you fail what your goal is and what you're trying to achieve, then obviously that always hurts.”
Fortunately, 2021 is right around the corner.
“We'll lick our wounds, we'll regroup, we'll continue to try to make the team better, and then set foot again next year for another journey,” levelled Vanney. “Hopefully it won't look like this year and hopefully we'll be able to get back into our stadium and hopefully teams will be playing in front of fans and some of that excitement will be driven back into the stadiums and the games and all that stuff. Hopefully it will look like a different season, but the guys will get themselves turned around and ready for another year when that time is right.”
Added Bradley: “Despite everything that's gone on this year, in the world, for our team, for me personally, we never for one second felt sorry for ourselves and we never for one second wanted anything to end sooner than it had to. So the disappointment and the frustration is big right now.”
“Having said that, we have no choice but to be optimistic about what the future is bringing for everyone,” he continued. “There's going to be some more months of having to really stay disciplined, in terms of dealing with this pandemic, but when you look at the news that's come out over the last week or two of some of these vaccines, you certainly hope that as we move deeper and deeper into 2021, that, little by little, the world can start to return to a new normal.”
“What that will mean for us as a team and as a club, hopefully, getting back to playing at BMO Field as soon as possible, with fans at a certain point,” Bradley anticipated. “So yeah, we're certainly very excited about the prospect of that and hopefully that's coming quick.”