Wednesday November 23rd, 2016

Sixty nearly flawless minutes from the Montreal Impact were undermined by a calamitous five-minute second-half stretch as Toronto FC came back from 3–0 down to trim its Eastern Conference final deficit to 3–2 in Tuesday night’s wild first leg.

A night that began with a grounds crew mistake and a 40-minute delay ended with U.S. national team stars Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley recouping two pivotal away goals to set up a finely-poised second leg next Wednesday in Toronto.

Montreal, in front of 60,000-plus raucous fans at the Olympic Stadium, overwhelmed TFC from the opening whistle, and went in front after 10 minutes through Dominic Oduro:

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Before the blue-clad fans had settled, and seemingly before Montreal’s bell had stopped clanging, the Impact grabbed a stunning second. Ignacio Piatti drifted in behind Toronto’s defense after a mistake from Steven Beitashour, and Matteo Mancosu knifed in to finish:

After some stability was regained late in the first half, it got worse for Toronto after halftime. Ambroise Oyongo picked off a loose ball at the back, scurried into space, and slid a left-footed shot past a scuttling Clint Irwin:

But if the bell’s toll was meant to be Toronto’s death knell, the visitors didn’t hear it. A chaotic sequence that featured nine of Montreal’s 11 players retreating into their own penalty area ended with Altidore heading past Evan Bush:

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Not long after, Bradley got the goal that firmly cemented Toronto, the MLS Cup favorites, back in the tie.

Here are three takeaways from a whirlwind of a night north of the border:

Toronto’s midfield was all over the place early

It’s almost as if Jurgen Klinsmann’s ill-fated 3-5-2 in Columbus corrupted the tactician in Bradley. After shielding Toronto’s back three so adeptly in TFC’s first three playoff games, Bradley was caught out on the first goal. Not a single one of Toronto’s three midfielders was marking a Montreal player when Patrice Bernier snuck into the space between midfield and defense and turned with the ball at his feet:

Nick Hagglund was then forced to decide between closing down Bernier and tracking the run of Oduro over his left shoulder. He did neither, and a few indecisive steps forward gave Bernier the space and the angle to find Oduro.

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The gaps in the midfield were gaping during the match’s first 33 minutes. Toronto struggled to match up man-to-man with Montreal like it did with NYCFC in the conference semifinals. With Bernier perhaps playing higher than expected, Bradley hurried over to Vanney during a 34th-minute stoppage to discuss a reconfiguration, and from there, some of the issues were solved, but not before they were the leading cause of the 2–0 deficit.

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Montreal manager Mauro Biello made the bold call in October to bench his star designated player, Champions League winner Didier Drogba. It was controversial to say the least. It was also rational, in large part due to the play of Italian striker Mancosu, who joined Montreal on loan from Bologna and has come into his own down the stretch.

Mancosu bagged his fourth goal in four games Tuesday night, and it was an emphatic one. Without breaking stride, he nipped in front of Hagglund and smashed Piatti’s low cross past Irwin with stunning precision and lethality.

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What separates Mancosu from Drogba, however, isn’t his goalscoring. It’s everything else. It’s his movement. It’s his defensive work rate. He stretched the game vertically while also pulling Toronto’s center backs to and fro to open up space for Piatti and Oduro. That willingness to work off the ball drove Montreal’s attack to three goals.

Toronto’s escape puts it in great position for leg two

Even after Oyongo snuck in Montreal’s third, Toronto knew that all it needed was one goal—one goal to make a second-leg comeback feasible. Somehow, someway it got that goal, then a second, and suddenly, the tie is arguably on even terms. The two away goals mean that a 1–0 win at BMO Field next Wednesday will suffice. So will a 2–1 win.

A win of some kind, though, is necessary, which sets up another fascinating 90 minutes. Toronto must attack, but not necessarily recklessly. Montreal must defend, but if the game is as open as Tuesday’s, and two goals look there for the taking, attacking could be even more important. Eight days of thought and anticipation are ahead.

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