Monday November 7th, 2016

NEW YORK — Sebastian Giovinco’s brilliance knows no bounds. And the buzz saw that Toronto FC suddenly is seemingly knows nothing of the club’s historic futility.

Behind a hat trick from Giovinco and a smashing volley from his American strike partner, TFC stormed into the Eastern Conference finals with 5–0 victory over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium Sunday evening. That completed a 7–0 thrashing over two legs.

The diminutive Italian forward sucked all the energy out of the first-ever MLS playoff crowd at Yankee Stadium before it could seep into the game. He spun and fired a 6th-minute goal into the bottom corner, then won and converted a 20th-minute penalty to all but put the conference semifinal tie to bed.

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Jozy Altidore then slammed an emphatic half-volley past a helpless Eirik Johansen from a tight angle to make it 3–0. The traveling Toronto fans bounded up and down with joy in the second deck. Jonathan Osorio added a fourth goal five minutes into the second half, and Giovinco hit home a fifth for good measure late on.

It was as comprehensive a two-leg playoff beatdown as Major League Soccer has seen. It was also a message from TFC to the other three conference finalists: We are your team to beat. The road to a title, for the first time, runs through Toronto.

Here are three takeaways from a chilly night in the Bronx:

One of the best strike partnerships in league history

Moments after Giovinco raced to the corner to celebrate his opener, the chants began to rain down from the opposite end of the stadium: “MVP! MVP! MVP!” They came again after he slotted home the penalty, and throughout the second half.

The irony, of course, is that Giovinco is not one of the league’s three MVP finalists, announced earlier this week. And that’s laughable.

Timing is right at last for Jozy Altidore to lead Toronto FC, USA

The Atomic Ant, as he’s known, is playing at an absurdly high level. It wasn’t just the goals. It was the confidence to try an audacious 25-yard half-volley from wide of the penalty area. It was the movement, which led to another glorious first-half chance from close range.

It was also the combinations with Altidore, who is hitting his stride at just the right time. Both can stretch defenses. Both are menacing on the break. Altidore’s strength as a target forward allows Giovinco to seek out space in midfield or wide. When he does, he terrorizes opposing fullbacks in 1-v-1 situations. He seemed darn near unstoppable Sunday.

The Giovinco-Altidore pairing not only gives Toronto the best attack in MLS, it has also allowed the nine players behind it to form one of the league’s most cohesive units.

TFC has found its formula

Toronto manager Greg Vanney started the exact same 11, in the same formation, for the fourth consecutive game Sunday, and it led to a fourth consecutive win.

It’s a setup that isn’t dependent on game state, nor opponent, nor anything else. Toronto had success with it in a 2–0 first-leg win last Sunday as it pressed and took initiative. Those two late goals put it in position to play on the break in New York this Sunday, and it thrived doing just that.

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Vanney’s 3-5-2 isolates Giovinco and Altidore, but it also can block up midfield. Michael Bradley wasn’t often a noticeable force in either game, but he protected Toronto’s three center backs nearly flawlessly. Armando Cooper and Osorio also did well with and without the ball. In their respective positions in this specific system, there didn’t appear to be a single weak link wearing red this Sunday or last.

Whereas other leagues around the world are about the totality of an eight- or nine-month season, MLS merely requires that a team get hot at the right time. Toronto is doing just that.

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Oh, Canada

It’s on to Montreal for Toronto FC. With the Impact’s 3–1 aggregate upset of the New York Red Bulls, the two Canadian teams will do battle at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to open up the Eastern Conference finals.

Entering Sunday, since MLS expanded north of the border in 2007, no Canadian team had ever won a two-leg playoff series. No Canadian team had ever advanced to the conference finals in either the west or the east. And, thus, no Canadian team had ever played in an MLS Cup final.

Suddenly, that history has been turned on its head. The two Canadian clubs simultaneously ruptured that streak. One will head to the MLS Cup final. But first, the rivalry will give us two intense, heated conference final matches.

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