Toronto FC II, playing in their first-ever postseason, picked up their first playoff win on Saturday evening defeating Philadelphia Union II 1-0 at BMO Field in the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.
Hugo Mbongue scored the only goal of the game in the 6th minute, capping off a devastating attack that saw Stefan Yeates split a ball between two defenders to Themi Antonoglou charging up the left channel. He in turn played forward to Jordan Perruzza who delivered an inviting ball for Mbongue to redirect in.
With the victory, TFC II advance to the Eastern Conference Finals where they will face the winners of the other Conference Semifinal, Columbus Crew 2, next Saturday in Ohio.
“Emotions were high with the boys, we knew that that would play a part in the match,” said head coach Gianni Cimini post-match. “There are some errors in terms of completing passes in certain situations, that affected the rhythm, but in the first half there were really good moments for us. Defensively we had to fix a few things to make sure that we got some pressure on to their centre-backs.”
TFC II Media Availability: Gianni Cimini - September 24, 2022
“In the second half, disappointed that we weren't able to attack from those deeper positions when we were defending. In terms of the chances that they had, I don't think there were many real chances except for the amount of set-pieces that we conceded,” he continued. “Some of the things that we talked about in training, the goal is scored that way: one-time passes, good attacks, going from side-to-side against a very narrow midfield for them. There were some moments where we needed to make the next pass, instead we're trying to strike. [That] was the difference between getting two goals and three goals.”
The goalscorer summed up the night succinctly: “We started off the game fairly well. We were in their half, created a couple of chances, and then we scored the goal early on.”
“We suffered a bit in our little block,” Mbongue continued. “But we kept it tight and we closed out the victory.”
Added Perruzza: “It's a great result.”
“Before the game if you say we win 1-0 and scrap it out the way we did, everyone would take that,” he underlined. “The locker room is buzzing right now and we're just taking all this positive energy to Columbus.”
On a big night on a big stage getting that early goal was crucial.
“It's everything,” said Perruzza. “We’ve got a lot of young players on the field that have never gotten to experience this amazing stadium and getting that goal takes away all those nerves, that ‘Oh my God, what if I mess up?’ It gave everyone a couple of seconds to breathe and say, ‘We can do this. We're up 1-0, we can do this.’”
It came right out of the tactical preparation for the match.
“It was something we were talking about in training,” said Cimini. “Hugo does fantastic, Jordan and Themi do very well on the action, but the whole team [too], of getting balls into those weak side spaces for us to get advantages.”
Cimini and his coaching staff planted the idea and the players executed.
“We knew that, against Philly especially, that the backline is exposed a lot when the ball is in wide areas,” said Mbongue. “I knew that if I make a run in behind that Jordan will find me. And I think I took the goal pretty well.”
And Perruzza, normally a central striker himself, knew just where to put the delivery.
“Those are the areas that I would wish the ball came to me, so that's all I was thinking: just play it into the spot that I would want it and Hugo, just like me, would react the same way,” he said. “And great from Hugo to tap it in.”
For Mbongue, who recently signed a first-team contract, it was his first goal at BMO Field.
“It felt good,” he smiled. “There's a sense of relief because I hadn’t scored in a long time and it was my first game at BMO as well – I’d missed the two that we played earlier this season through injury.”
TFC II Media Availability: Hugo Mbongue - September 24, 2022
“It was a great feeling scoring in front of all those fans,” Mbongue added. “And hopefully it's not the last one.”
Up early, Toronto knew that Philadelphia would press for an equalizer. There were chances to extend their advantage and a minor scare when the visitors had the ball in the back of the net, only for an apparent handball in the build-up to chalk it off.
A bit of suffering never hurts.
“We knew that [there would be] some of those moments,” said Cimini. “Credit to Rohan [Goulbourne] and Anthony Curic in the backline, they were fantastic in their duels, they kept a cool head and we dealt with it really well.”
“I told the guys some games you win by suffering and this second half we suffered, but we really didn't suffer that much if I'm completely honest,” he added. “It was just a phase of the game that we were in and the guys stay committed and they executed.”
A victory with a couple thousand fans at their back made for a special night.
“It was nice to see all those fans out there supporting us,” thanked Mbongue. “It felt great.”
Added Perruzza: “Everyone that came out here played a big role in the game tonight. We all felt it on the field. It was amazing to have a playoff game back at BMO, it's been a while, so it was exciting, really exciting.”
TFC II Media Availability: Jordan Perruzzai - September 24, 2022
That 13 of the 16 players who saw action are from Ontario made it more so.
“A lot of the guys are from Toronto and the GTA, so for them growing up, coming to this stadium, and then being in a position where they're playing a meaningful match here and then to win to get to the conference final,” reflected Cimini. “They were, in many moments, on the other side, in the stands watching as young kids and now they're on the field able to do something special. It was very special for them.”
After the final whistle a series of loud roars could be heard emanating from the locker room, the players clearly enjoying the night.
“Oh yeah,” smiled Cimini. “They've worked hard the whole year. They've been such a committed group, a together group, guys that want to come in to be better.”
“And now when they see us getting results and we've reached the conference final, for them it's about enjoying it,” he continued. “The message was enjoy tonight, we’ve got to recover the next two days, and then we get our build-up training. It's part of the feeling of winning and feeling good. They have to make sure that they take these moments in with their teammates.”
Mbongue explained the noises: “We were happy about the victory.”
“But we know that the job's not finished,” he pivoted. “We know we have to go to Columbus and get another result.”
TFC II have earned themselves a chance to go on.
Standing in their way are Columbus, who took top spot in the Eastern Conference and the league overall in the regular season. Crew II dispatched Rochester NY FC earlier in the day with a 4-1 victory in the other semifinal.
The game is set for next Saturday in Ohio with time and location yet to be confirmed.
“It's 90 minutes against a top side in the league, the top side in the league,” said Cimini. “We're going to go to the video to prepare for some of the things that they do. We know it's going to be a difficult match, but we feel over the course of 90 minutes if there's desire, if there's consistency, if we are good on the day, then anything can happen. We feel confident."