Toronto FC gutted out a 1-0 aggregate triumph over Columbus to return to the MLS Cup final stage for a second straight season.

By Brian Straus
November 29, 2017

The MLS Cup final will return to Toronto, whose MLS team—a long-time doormat—now is a repeat Eastern Conference champion.

Boosted by momentum, narrative, a brilliant young goalkeeper and an astute tactical change, the Columbus Crew came a lot closer than most expected to knocking off the league’s top club. But in the end, Toronto FC’s patience, precision and multi-million dollar players made the difference.

Forward Jozy Altidore, who was struggling with a gimpy ankle, scored the only goal as the Reds defeated Columbus, 1-0, in the second leg of the conference finals on Wednesday night in Toronto. The hosts won the two-game series by the same score following last week’s scoreless tie in Ohio, and they’ll get another crack at the big prize on Dec. 9.

Here are three thoughts on the decider of a cagey, absorbing series:

Altidore and Giovinco shake off the rust

TFC’s leading scorers, Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, lost their cool during the conference semis and could’ve cost their club dearly with unnecessary suspensions. There was 42% of the club’s regular season scoring, gone for last week's opener versus the Crew.

Toronto (22-6-10) and coach Greg Vanney managed that game in Columbus well, however, playing four in back and grinding out the 0-0 draw. The question Wednesday would be whether Altidore and Giovinco, who hadn’t played in 24 days, would be rested or rusty.

“The [0-0] result was good. Now it’s our turn, and I hope we do the best job for the team,” Giovinco told reporters this week.

Neither had a good first half, as the Crew’s unexpected shift to a 3-5-2 (more on that below) created a clogged, compact rearguard that TFC’s star forwards had difficulty navigating. When Altidore went down with an ankle injury in the 50th minute and then spent time getting treatment on the Toronto sideline, it seemed like an unhappy ending was even more likely.

Then the magic happened. Alex Bono’s long, 60th-minute goal kick bounced to Giovinco, who brilliantly shielded the ball from much-larger Crew defender Jonathan Mensah. A quick heel pass found Altidore, who slipped the ball to playmaker Víctor Vázquez and then took off toward goal. Altidore received Vázquez’s return pass and lofted a delicate, accurate shot over Crew netminder Zack Steffen.

Altidore left the match eight minutes later, but after a long wait, he and Giovinco had gotten the job done.

“I couldn’t leave the game,” Altidore told Fox afterward. “I felt like I had more to give, that there was a chance coming. Luckily the chance came while I was still on.”

TFC fights to the threshold of history

Toronto’s regular season was pretty, potent and glorious. The playoffs have been anything but. The first series against the New York Red Bulls was chippy, ugly and contentious. This two-game set against Columbus (17-14-8) was tight, tactical and tense. Many thought the Reds would waltz to the MLS Cup final. Instead, it was a gauntlet, during which one of the most prolific attacks in league history netted just three goals in four games.

Nobody in Seattle cared about aesthetics when the Sounders didn’t muster a shot on goal then won last year’s MLS Cup on penalties. And the Reds don’t care now.

“If you want to be a good team, if you want to be a team that competes for trophies, that wins trophies, you have to be able to win on different type of days,” TFC captain Michael Bradley told reporters this week.

Columbus made it hard. Coach Gregg Berhalter’s 3-5-2 put TFC in numerical disadvantages it’s not used to confronting. Giovinco and Altidore faced extra cover in the heart of the Crew defense. TFC wingers Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow had competition for the wide spaces, and Bradley had to contend with both Justin Meram and Federico Higuaín in the middle. The Reds failed to muster much rhythm.

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The breaks didn’t go their way either, as Vázquez saw his 26th-minute penalty kick saved by Steffen (who’s been making a habit of being unbeatable from 12 yards). But Toronto didn’t play frustrated like it did against New York, nor did it seem slowed by somber memories of last season's loss to the Sounders. Vanney tried to retake control of the tactical narrative by switching to a 4-4-2 after halftime—it seemed to reset the game, at least—and the Reds persevered.

“Tonight was a gutsy performance,” Vanney told Fox. “Things weren’t as clear as we wanted them to be in the first half, and made a halftime adjustment. I thought we we were getting on the right side of things, then Jozy gets hurt—requires another adjustment. The guys just kept working. They kept battling through it.”

Now, they’re 90 minutes from something that’s never been done. If TFC defeats either Seattle or the Houston Dynamo in the final, it will become the first team to win an MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and domestic cup (U.S. Open Cup/Canadian Championship) treble.

“A big thing is learning how to grind games out,” Altidore said when asked if this season’s TFC is better than the 2016 edition. “A game like this, maybe last year we probably don’t win.”

Agony and uncertainty for Columbus

Columbus did almost everything right, except make the final play that mattered most. Like many games, this one came down to penalty area precision, and Toronto’s stars had the final touch the Crew’s couldn’t muster.

Considering the controversy and distraction caused by owner Anthony Precourt’s effort to move the team to Austin, Texas, the fact that Berhalter’s squad was a goal away from hosting the final is remarkable. It’s a run that’ll be remembered. But for it to end so close to glory—especially with the uncertainty and potential pain on the horizon—is excruciating.

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The Crew were well prepared, and they handled playing in a 3-5-2 like they were the ones who used it all season (it’s TFC’s signature alignment). Columbus then needed only the single away goal, even after Altidore scored, and they came so close to getting it.

Meram had the final on his foot in the first half thanks to a well-orchestrated counter by Higuaín, but a heavy touch and Bradley’s remarkable recovery ended that chance. Steffen made the save on Vázquez a few minutes later—maybe this was a team of destiny after all—but that tease never paid off.

In the frantic final moments, Columbus created two more excellent chances. But Meram shot high from 12 yards, and a wide-open Ola Kamara just missed getting a touch to a Meram cross that had been redirected at the near post.

Columbus outshot Toronto, but put only one of its 11 attempts on goal. The precision just wasn’t there.

Typically, a fifth-seed to get this far is celebrated. And while there should be no criticism in Columbus (of the players and coaches, at least), coming so close feels like a brutal blow to a team and a fan base that might be facing even more pain next year.