Toronto FC II lost an unforgettable Eastern Conference Final on Sunday evening, falling 4-3 away to Columbus Crew 2 at Historic Crew Stadium.
Noah Fuson gave the home side the lead after 32 minutes, tapping in a Ryan Telfer cross, but TFC drew level two minutes into the second half through Paul Rothrock, who picked the pocket of a Columbus defender to catch the goalkeeper out of position with an unrecorded assist to Jordan Perruzza, who harried Patrick Schulte into a rushed outlet ball.
Crew 2 would restore their lead on the hour mark from the penalty spot via Isaiah Parente, who converted after Antony Curic’s trailing arm blocked a low ball in the area. But just as it seemed the hosts would see out the result, supersub Reshaun Walkes won a free-kick just outside the box.
After a brief discussion, Themi Antonoglou stood over the deadball in the third of three minutes of stoppage-time. With fate on his left-boot, Antonoglou placed his free-kick perfectly, slotting it inside the right-post to draw Toronto back level on virtually the last play of the game, sending the night into extra time.
Not yet done Antonoglou then spotted the Crew 2 keeper off his line on a transition and hit a lofted ball from inside the centre circle to put TFC II ahead four minutes into the first half of extra time.
Toronto would see out the rest of that first frame, but a well-taken free-kick from Parente in the 109th minute allowed Jordan Knight to squeeze an equalizer in at the short side and Coleman Gannon pounced on rebound in the 119th minute to put Columbus into the MLS NEXT Pro Final.
Victory within their grasp, it was a tough way for the 2022 season to end for the Young Reds, but they go into the off-season with their heads held high.
“This group of guys were extremely committed throughout the year,” said head coach Gianni Cimini post-match. “If you look at the growth from day one to where we're at right now, taking the first place team right to the end, they have everything to be proud about.”
“So proud of the guys,” he continued. “Obviously it's a difficult moment for them, but [I told them] to be proud of themselves.”
The season that began with such uncertainty – a new coach, a new squad, a new stadium, and a new era for the parent club – came together nicely and ended 11 minutes short of the Eastern Conference title and a spot in the final.
“Today's game was a real reflection of our season in a way,” weighed Rothrock. “A lot of adversity throughout the game and throughout the season. Started off rough – in the game too – and then we had a stretch where we went winless for a couple games. When that happened our team got together, we had a team meeting and really laid down some principles for ourselves: resilience, trust, and purpose.”
“We really started hammering that in with each other and with our coaches and then we went on a 10-game unbeaten streak and really set ourselves up for the end of the season,” he continued. “It wasn't the ending we were looking for, but I'll speak for everybody to say that I'm very proud of the group. We're proud of where we came this year. We're proud to bring a bright spot this year for Toronto as a club. But yeah, tough way to finish.”
Signed to a first team contract earlier this year, Antonoglou has been a consistent contributor for TFC II over the last two-plus seasons. His quality was obvious, but on the biggest days it takes a special player to step up and be a difference maker.
He did it twice in quick succession on Sunday.
“Themi... I mean, if you want one guy with the ball in that position, that has the confidence to do it, has the ability to do it, it's Themi for sure,” said Cimini. “Defensively there were moments that we talked about at halftime, about [Mo] Farsi getting in behind him, but in terms of with the ball you see the kind of qualities that he has on the set-piece, that he's able to deliver.”
“We talked about the keeper being high at times. One of the staff said, ‘he’s out, he’s out, he’s out’ and because he has the confidence to do it, he does it,” he added about that stunning second goal. “Happy about the goals that he scored, how he was able to contribute.”
Said Rothrock: “Themi has been a huge player for us.”
“He's really clean on the ball, steps up in big moments for us. He’s been a huge contributor all year, the number of assists and the goals he scored from a wing-back position. I was blown away by his two goals tonight,” he added. “He kept us in the game. Very proud of how he played tonight and he should be too.”
Though it ended in defeat it was a special night for that collection of young men, for those who watched it, and for the club itself.
Rothrock, who scored the first, summed up the occasion nicely, one that was particularly special for him: “I like playing big games and I've had a history of that in my career. These games to me are the most fun. They're why I play the game.”
“When I'm playing my best I'm playing with a sense of real joy and I felt like I found that tonight – I was having fun today,” he continued. “I was having fun playing against the opposing crowd and hearing that. And I was lucky enough that my whole family came. I have four sisters who live around the country and they all came and supported me. That's the only game I've had, in my memory, where my whole family has been there, all six of them. So that was special, to score a goal for them, but I [would have preferred] to just win.”
As has been one of their traits all season, TFC II responded well to adversity.
Columbus were dominant in the first half with home field advantage, the crowd, and their place in the standings at their back. Toronto made a substitute and a tactical change at half-time, but it was the attitude that made the most pronounced difference.
They took their game to Crew 2, they asked questions, and were proactive instead of reactive.
“In the first half the same problems presented themselves, it was execution,” said Cimini of the very different two halves. “The things that we talked about from a tactical standpoint – getting the ball on the ground, there's space to break them down, we don't have to lift balls in the air – it came down to just giving the guys belief on what we were trying to achieve and to continue to do that.”
“We had a couple of different shapes for a couple of different defensive looks that they were going to give us, we were ready every time, the solutions were there, it just came down to execution,” he stressed. “That was the message at half-time. It was just giving them confidence, to say, ‘Hey, the solutions that we've been talking about in training, they're there.’ It just comes down to guys executing in certain situations and they did it in the second half.”
The ol’ tale of two halves is a cliche, but the difference was plain to see.
“We weren't playing how we would have liked to play in the first half,” said Rothrock. “A lot of long balls, we weren't keeping the ball on the surface, and that was making it difficult for us to get into the game and play how we want to play, play in our identity.”
“Our coaches made a good shift at half-time, we switched into a 4-3-3 and that really helped. We started to take control of the game more, we started having more of the ball, we started owning the midfield a little bit more,” he continued. “And then overtime, a lot of that goes out the window and it's just who wants it more, desire. Second balls are going to be huge in that and we lost that battle near the end.”
With the final whistle fast approaching a pair of scrappy plays proved the difference.
“Individual execution,” pinpointed Cimini. “We have this method of playing late when we're up and we just want to close it out and make it difficult. It was working.”
“One of the things we talk about in those situations is that we just have to make sure that we're under control. We don't have to win anything, we just have to block crosses and don't concede fouls,” he levelled. “We concede a foul. And even though we concede the foul, we're still dealing with it well. Knight is on the ball, there’s two guys on it, so there's even a little bit of luck that goes into that situation.”
Columbus were the favourites going into that match, but one has to believe Toronto put some doubt into the equation.
“We matched them tonight. Anybody watching the game would say that, especially from the second half on,” said Rothrock. “They've been a great team all year. Credit to their management, they're a very talented group all around.”
“We were playing with a bit of a chip on our shoulder too, of being the underdog. The league has really focused on Columbus this year, rightly so – they've had the best record, a lot of top performers. We were playing with a chip on our shoulder given that none of us made the Best XI and four of them did,” he added. “We wanted to show our quality and we did that today.”
2023 will be here soon enough. Every one of those players will have grown from their experiences this season. The future is bright.
“The message in the changing room was, ‘Yeah, you have to absorb it, but you don't leave this room with your head down, you leave it with your head up,’” closed Cimini. “You played like men and men walk out of the changing room with their head up.’”
“I told them how proud I was of them, of the work that they put in the whole year,” he continued. “It was an easy group to work with. It's a really close group. They feel it. There's some tears, for sure. It's a difficult moment, but they set the standard, the benchmark, higher for the following years.”
“It's been for so long 'the playoffs,' 'making the playoffs,' and now it's 'winning the Eastern Conference, getting to the final,'” Cimini added. “They have to be proud of that.”