Aron Winter had talked before the game about having a surprise in store for Montreal, who knows exactly what he was referring to, unless it was the appearance of Torsten Frings, but there was plenty of things on Wednesday night that surprised everyone watching, not least of which was the final score, as Toronto FC moved on to the Voyageurs Cup final with a 2-0 win.
Yes, after almost 2 months since their previous, and only, win this season against L.A Galaxy, Toronto once again flipped the switch into must win cup game mode and came away with a well deserved win that included all sorts of things have been in short supply this year in league play, and never at the same time. Effort, luck, composure, feisty determination and a good defensive performance all combined to make sure L'Impact still haven't beaten TFC in Voyageurs Cup play. Yes it's just one game after a series of mostly poor performances, and there's a long way to go before anyone can say TFC have turned any kind of corner, but at the very least, the season has 2 more weeks of having a purpose, and just being able to celebrate a win again feels nice. For Winter, it will mean a week's respite from talk of his firing.
Montreal had come into the game without letting a goal in in 288 minutes, including the first leg, but it took only 2 minutes for TFC to put an end to that, with a healthy does of luck. With Ryan Johnson peeling off to the left as he did many times during the game, Joao Plata and Eric Avila combined very nicely to create a half chance for Plata. The Impact defence collapsed in on Plata and blocked his shot. The ball fell very nicely to Reggie Lambe coming in from the right, and his luck continued as his shot was deflected and spun just inside the far post.
Luck also played a similar part in the second goal as after a corner, a blocked clearance pinballed to Ryan Johnson. He reacted well to get a header on it, which was blocked only for the ball to fall right to his feet from where he made no mistake to make it 2. It has to be a huge relief for Johnson who's had a lot of near misses and chances since his last goal, and who had expressed his frustration with the lack of support in recent games.
Johnson also demonstrated some of the focused passion that, though occasionally bubbling over, was a refreshing change to the insipid play and sniping at each other that was exhibited in the last few games. That occasional bubbling over was mainly seen in 3 episodes that showcased a growing feistiness that's only natural when rivals play each other so often in a short time. Johnson got into a bit of a scuffle just before half time when protesting what he saw as Montreal's tendency to embelish, Bob de Klerk had to be restrained at the end of the game when he confronted Impact coach Jesse Marsch about who knows what. That was all fun and games, but it really could have hurt TFC as they had to play most of the game with ten men. Richard Eckersley went into a challenge with Sinisa Ubiparipovic with his customary zeal, and though it was in no way malicious, and a foul was actually given against Ubiparipovic, Eckersley's clumsy physicality saw him catch him on the calf and get a straight red card that even with repeated replays looks very harsh.
The rest of the game showed the focused passion though, as the ten men took it to Montreal in the first half, creating chances despite having just 40% of the possession, before a very determined defensive performance in the second half saw TFC limit Montreal's chances, as well as getting counter attack opportunities that forced better saves from Donovan Ricketts than anything Milos Kocic had to cope with. Given how defeated the team looked during and after Saturday's game, it was a welcome change to see the team out there fighting for each other for the full 90 minutes.
Perhaps the most obvious improvement though was in defence, particularly the Centre Backs. This was the first time that Adrian Cann was paired with Doneil Henry in the middle of a 4 man defence and it worked very well, Henry in particular had a very good game, especially in the air at both ends of the pitch, providing an aerial threat from set pieces that TFC have very rarely had. Both Henry and Cann are more about the basics of defending rather than any fanciness and slick passing, but right now that's not a bad thing at all, it's just what TFC need, and unlike last week, you can't say the clean sheet was a fluke. Reggie Lambe is also worthy of a special mention as he filled in admirably at Right back before the introduction of Jeremy Hall.
With Eckersley suspended due to his red card, Hall will probably get the start next week against Vancouver, who finished off FC Edmonton in the other semi final. TFC will hope to have Danny Koevermans back for that one, after this game saw the return of Nick Soolsma. You'd obviously have to say Vancouver will be the favourites after the start to the season they've had, but if TFC can play as they did here, they'll have a chance. Yes, they did get lucky with the goals, but that luck was earned, not just with the near misses and seeming bad luck in earlier games, but with the effort they put in to maintain the lead even with ten men.
There's been little flashes of what TFC can do in all the games they've played so far, but never the consistent 90 minute effort and lack of mistakes to make a complete game. Hopefully they can find some way to translate their cup form into league play. With a bye week coming up, that will have to wait until after the first leg of the final, TFC now have a week to prepare for that game in Vancouver. They've made sure that Montreal have still never beaten them in Voyageurs Cup play, now they get a chance to make sure that Vancouver's name is once again kept off the trophy.