Toronto FC had every reason to lose its collective composure. It was playing on less than four days rest against a fresh opponent content to grind out a scoreless draw in Sunday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. There were fouls galore, six yellow cards and next to no room for TFC’s attack to operate. With 10 minutes remaining, it appeared as if New York City FC would return to the Bronx for Sunday’s decider level on aggregate.
If a game this ugly was going to be decided, it was going to be by an ugly goal. And Jozy Altidore was happy to oblige. The American forward made the most of a fortunate bounce and pounded a shot into the roof of the NYCFC net, giving TFC a long-awaited and deserved lead in the 84th minute. Then in stoppage time, substitute Tosaint Ricketts scored what may prove to be the back-breaker when he knocked home a rebound from close range.
Toronto and NYCFC were separated by only one point after 34 regular season games. TFC’s 2-0 triumph represents a much wider gap, and second-seeded NYCFC has a lot of work ahead of it in next Sunday’s second leg.
Here are three thoughts on TFC’s win at BMO Field:
Experience, such as it is, makes the difference
This was only the third playoff game in Toronto’s history. But compared to NYCFC, those previous two contests represented a massive difference in experience. Not a single one of coach Patrick Vieira’s starters had appeared in an MLS postseason match, and although big-game credentials hardly are lacking on the second-year squad, its approach Sunday didn’t exactly scream self-confidence. NYCFC (15-11-9) came in unbeaten in five previous games against Toronto (16-9-11) but played a somewhat scared, cynical game hardly befitting the second seed. NYCFC was not playoff ready.
The visitors committed 19 fouls, drew five yellow cards and didn’t appear to have an offensive plan beyond hoping Jack Harrison would dribble through the entire TFC rearguard. NYCFC arguably was fortunate to have 11 players on the field at game’s end. TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco was the primary target, and the strategy worked for the most part. He was less effective than usual (although he took a game-high eight shots) and Toronto was unable to make NYCFC pay for fouling due to poor set piece delivery. The hosts got a bit physical too (12 fouls, one yellow), but never lashed out or lost their heads. The tension ramped up, but TFC improved as the game wore on, found ways to maneuver through the clogged offensive third and eventually got the goals they deserved. For a team that rarely has been on this stage, Toronto looked quite comfortable.
“The experience of having played in this game, a one-off, a do-or-die game... it's invaluable,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said after Wednesday’s knockout-round win over Philadelphia. “New York City doesn't have that. If we can use the momentum, build on the energy inside the stadium... there's not going to be any team that wants to play us.”
Altidore and Bradley are the stars who come through
TFC and NYCFC are billed as two of MLS’s most high-profile, star-studded clubs. But the only stars that showed up Sunday wore red. Altidore and Bradley were the men of the match for TFC. There was a time in his career when Altidore might drift out of games when the ball wasn’t coming his way. No longer. He was relentless on Sunday and in the second half especially showed a willingness to retreat, track back and do whatever he could to find the ball. The bounce that led to his goal was fortunate—it followed a scrum in front of the goal and a poor clearance—but the fact he was standing there was a testament to his work rate. He now has two goals and an assist in two playoff games and four goals in his past five matches overall.
Bradley’s influence can’t be measured by statistics, but it was obvious. The U.S. national team captain was everywhere, constantly involved in all phases of the game and making his presence felt on both sides of the ball. His free-kick delivery should have been better, but from open play he was a force. The field tilted Toronto’s way, especially in the second half, thanks in large part to his effort. He kept it clean in back, missing only one pass in his defensive half, and, according to MLS, Bradley had more tackles Sunday than in any previous game this year.
Contrast that with NYCFC’s stars, who were either unimpressive or not on the field. David Villa’s most notable contribution was not getting ejected for kicking out at Toronto’s Armando Cooper in the first half. Frank Lampard saw yellow for scything down Bradley in the second and Andrea Pirlo missed the game altogether with what Vieira said was a calf injury suffered in training.
It certainly took TFC a long time to get it right, and NYCFC’s improvement in year two should be lauded. But if the big names don’t come through in crunch time, a case can be made that they’re not worth all that money.
Vieira will be questioned
The Frenchman surprised many when he started 24-year-old Norwegian Eirik Johansen in goal instead of Josh Saunders, who was in net for 33 of NYCFC’s 34 regular season games. Johansen wasn’t at fault for the loss, and his first-half save on a breaking Giovinco was spectacular. But messing with defensive chemistry in such a big game typically is a no-no, and it’s one of several decisions made by Vieira that NYCFC fans may be wondering about in the week ahead.
Lampard, who returned from injury last week and played 17 minutes in the regular season finale, was left on the bench Sunday until the 61st. Tommy McNamara, who had five goals and nine assists in 28 starts this season, didn’t come in at all. He would have provided NYCFC with another outlet beside Harrison. Khiry Shelton was another attacking option left on the bench. He entered with a little over 10 minutes left.
Instead, Vieira—who’d stressed pretty, possession soccer all season—seemed committed to stripping the game down and getting out of Toronto with a scoreless draw. NYCFC’s struggled to string passes together and struggled to pressure TFC higher up the field. As a result, the visitors were clearing the ball and hanging on for dear life more than they were building from the back. The responsibility put on the shoulders of midfielders Mikey Lopez (six regular season starts) and Federico Bravo was too much.
NYCFC will hope it’s a lesson learned. This wasn’t a team set up Sunday to play the way Vieira has wanted it to play this season. Familiar faces were missing and the plan was going to fail if Toronto found solutions. And it did, emphatically, at the end.