Thursday December 1st, 2016

A game and MLS Cup semifinal series that will be remembered for about as long as Toronto and Montreal remain rivals produced a dramatic comeback, a first-time Eastern Conference champion and set up a star-studded title game on Dec. 10.

Toronto FC, which was behind by three goals at one point during the first game of this home-and-home series, came from behind to force extra time in Wednesday’s decider then tore the Montreal Impact to shreds in the added 30 minutes. TFC won the match, 5-2, and the series, 7-5, on aggregate.

Toronto (18-10-11) wouldn’t be denied in the rain at BMO Field in front of a crowd of around 36,000 fans. Laughing stocks for so long—TFC flailed and failed and engaged in annual rebuilds that didn’t produce a single playoff team from its 2007 inaugural season through 2014. The club's maiden playoff voyage ended in an embarrassing knockout round loss to the Impact last year. Then the Reds exacted revenge and clinched the Eastern Conference title the same season they won their first playoff game. They’ll host the Seattle Sounders, another MLS Cup first-timer, on Dec. 10 in Ontario.

Here are three thoughts from an incredible night in Toronto:

Substitutes are the overtime heroes, but Altidore is the difference

It seemed like bad news for TFC when its brilliant catalyst, Sebastian Giovinco, was forced out with an injury early in extra time. It hadn’t been the Italian’s best game in open play, but he set up Toronto’s first two goals on corner kicks and seemed to have a bit of energy and enterprise left in the tank toward the end. Where would the winning goal come from?

From a replacement, of course, who’d scored all of one goal with his two seasons with the club. Frenchman Benoit Cheyrou, 35, was acquired last year and made only 14 league appearances during the 2016 season. He almost surely wasn’t scheduled to play Wednesday, but Giovinco’s injury changed coach Greg Vanney’s plans. Cheyrou took the field in the 97th minute and in the 98th, he raced in front of Montreal defender Hassoun Camara and met Steven Beitashour’s cross with a diving header.

Two minutes later, midfielder Tosaint Ricketts, who replaced workhorse veteran Will Johnson in the second half, slide toward the goal line and knocked in a low feed from Jozy Altidore. Montreal was finally broken.

While Cheyrou and Ricketts delivered the final blows, it was Altidore who bent the Impact until they were ready to break. The forward has bristled when asked if he thinks he’s playing the finest soccer in his career. But either way, he’s enjoying an epic playoff run. His 45th minute goal, which came on a well-planned, well-executed near-post header off a Giovinco corner kick, gave TFC a short-lived aggregate advantage. It also made Altidore the first player in MLS history to score in five consecutive playoff games during the same postseason.

Montreal might have wished Altidore was sent off for his first-half collision with Hernán Bernardello, which appeared to result in a concussion–or at the very least a significant blow to the head–for the Argentine midfielder. But no card was shown (it probably was worth a yellow) and Bernardello somehow remained in the match until halftime.

Altidore’s relentless influence would last much longer. Defender Nick Hagglund sent the game to overtime with his 68th-minute header, and then Altidore went to work. His deft redirection of a Michael Bradley pass set Beitashour up for the game-winning cross. And it was Altidore’s skillful separation and powerful run through the right channel that led to the cross for Ricketts.

He has five goals and four assists in five playoff games. Unlike many TFC DPs of the past, Altidore has been worth every cent. And unlike Toronto teams of the past, this one was well structured, properly balanced and blessed with adequate depth.

“It’s all for the fans,” Altidore told Fox after the game. “They suffered a long time. To deliver the type of season we have this year, it means a lot and hopefully we can give them one more celebration.”

What an absolute classic series

The start was anticlimactic, thanks to a delay caused by faulty field lining in Montreal. Then 210 minutes of mayhem followed.

The first two-game playoff series between Canadian clubs is going to be remembered for a long time, but it may never be replicated. There were a record-setting 12 goals scored across the two legs, nearly 100,000 fans in attendance and the atmospheric backdrops of the ear-splitting din at the Stade Olympique and the electricity, pouring rain and smoke at BMO Field.

Planet Futbol
Seattle Sounders advance to first MLS Cup after beating Colorado Rapids

Twenty times since MLS introduced home-and-home series in 2003, one team held a three-goal lead at one point. Only once—that year, in fact—did the trailing club recover to win. And no team that lost the first game of a conference final series ever recovered to win the trophy. TFC was down by three at the hour mark of the first leg. The Reds pulled two back in Montreal then fell behind further early Wednesday night. Then Armando Cooper scored in the 37th and just before halftime, Altidore scored on that near-post header. At that point, Toronto had completed the comeback and was ahead on away goals.

But this series wasn’t over. Ignacio Piatti put Montreal back in front with a strange bundle of a goal, setting the stage for TFC’s dramatic three-goal run.

There was Giovinco’s overtime exit, Didier Drogba’s late entry and last run for the Impact (15-12-12), several controversial calls (of course) and intriguing tactics. Both teams have an identity and a good, consistent idea of how they want to play. Watching Vanney try to solve Montreal’s counterattack with the first-leg insertion of Johnson and seeing the Impact try to blunt Giovinco while exploiting TFC’s 3-5-2 enhanced the narrative. And these teams know each other as well as they know themselves. This was the eighth 401 Derby this year, from a preseason tournament in Florida through the MLS regular season and Canadian Championship and finally, to an Eastern Conference finals that cements this as a rivalry that fans on both sides off the border shouldn’t miss.

Planet Futbol
Toronto FC's stars are shining, but team-wide effort, press are keys to success

A star-studded final is in store

Despite their miserable playoff histories—Seattle kept falling short and Toronto couldn’t get there—the Sounders and Reds were popular preseason picks to make the MLS Cup final. The end result isn’t surprising, but the path each of them took was. Seattle transferred Obafemi Martins before the season, fired coach Sigi Schmid and lost Clint Dempsey to a heart ailment during the season and at one point was in last place in the Western Conference. But Jordan Morris came of age, playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro was as good, or better, than advertised and the Sounders finally ended their playoff jinx. They clinched the conference title by becoming the first team to beat the Colorado Rapids at altitude this year. Those were the games Seattle used to lose.

Planet Futbol
Which players have new international life in Bruce Arena's USMNT?

Toronto overhauled its defense during the offseason and took some time to gel, winning only four of its first 13 games through May. Altidore had injury issues, and the Reds dropped a few too many points at home in the stretch run and fell from first to third in the East. You’re supposed to enter the playoffs in good form, and TFC didn’t.

But that changed quickly and dramatically. TFC blew out Philadelphia and New York City FC, scoring 10 goals in three games, then survived their epic against the Impact.

Both teams now are in uncharted territory. So is the league. It will be the first final featuring two teams that didn’t play MLS’s inaugural season back in 1996. But Seattle and Toronto have been key parts of the league’s recent surge thanks to their extensive support and commitment to signing big-name players. MLS Cup will feature Morris, Lodeiro, Osvaldo Alonso and the resurgent Nelson Valdez in green. They’ll go up against Giovinco, Bradley, Altidore, Ricketts, Cheyrou and the rest of the red-clad men who ensured Wednesday’s game will live on in MLS lore.

The final has a lot to live up to.

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