After falling behind to some woeful play inside the first minute – what was Darren O’Dea thinking with that back-header - Toronto stormed back with three goals before the half-time whistle blew.
They did so by dominating the midfield – something not regularly seen this season – and by moving quickly into attack – again, counter to their usual plodding method.
Jeremy Brockie’s quick response perhaps best illustrates what worked for TFC that day.
A poor Matteo Ferrari pass intended for Marco Di Vaio is intercepted by Matias Laba in the centre-circle; post-match Ryan Nelsen would proclaim such ‘poor passes’ as being a product of Toronto goading the Impact into making them – a tactic they spend time working on in practice.
If so, it was functioning perfectly on the night. But in order to take advantage of such a tactic, one must translate the change in possession into a scoring chance, which, apparently, has not been worked on the training pitch nearly enough.
Anyways, by intercepting that pass, Laba has caught the majority of Montreal midfield on the wrong side of the ball – only Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud remain goal-side, while Ferrari is now dragged forward, slightly out of position.
Laba plays up to Reggie Lambe towards the right, with Arnaud stepping to contain, lacking adequate support to really pressure, Lambe is given time to pick his head up and survey his options.
Ryan Richter begins an overlapping run wide-right, but Lambe opts to play across to Bobby Convey, who has inched in from the left and is wide open. Andres Romero, the man who should be closest to Convey, was looking to combine with Di Vaio, and was thusly caught up-field by the transition.
Convey is given time to face goal, saunter up-field, and pick his ball – whether it was a shot or a pass, only he will know – and through the good grace of some poor defending and an excellent finish, TFC ties up the match.
Intercepting and transitioning is all well and good, but in order to capitalize a side must commit numbers forward.
Take O’Dea’s goal: though nobody in their right mind would have classed him as a flying wing-back when he was moved out there as cover, there he is powering forward, threading through a seam in the Montreal defense to score his first goal in MLS.
The ability to know when to go (and when to stay) is why O’Dea is preferred to Ashtone Morgan, who has looked unsure in that role – under Aron Winter his role was clearly to press forward; Nelsen, as a centre-back himself by trade, seems to desire a more conservative full-back.
O’Dea’s commitment to the attack catches Montreal out, neither Romero, nor Bernier, adequately track his run from deep and Alessandro Nesta is too flat-footed to mount much of a challenge.
On Steven Caldwell’s towering header, it is only through having several options in the box (and some excellent service from Brockie, something that will be touched on in a future edition) that the goal is scored – how many times has TFC sent a set-piece or a cross into the box with limited, or no, options there to get on the end of the service.
Here’s Toronto rolling to a 3-1 lead by dominating the midfield, forcing interceptions, committing to attacks, and getting men forward, so what happened?
Well, Collen Warner happened.
Replacing Bernier in the 66th minute of play, Warner broke up the Toronto monopoly in the midfield, which, admittedly, had started to crumble at the start of the second half.
Warner, who looked excellent with Montreal last season after being poached from Salt Lake in the Expansion Draft, has found minutes few and far between as the Impact transitioned from Jesse Marsch’s two holder system to Marco Schallibaum’s one man shield in front of the back-four.
With Bernier looking tired, Warner’s energy, chasing down balls and surging up from deep, provided extra thrust through the middle and turned the balance of power in Montreal’s favour.
The turnaround wasn’t entirely up to that substitution alone; Hassoun Camara, at right-back, began to commit himself forward, Sanna Nyassi – who came on for Arnaud five minutes earlier – injected some pace and width, while Toronto’s high pressing began to drop off, perhaps to be expected given the energy already expended in such warm conditions.
From the start of the second half, it was pretty clear that something had changed and that Montreal had come out to make amends for a poor first.
What Toronto needed was an earlier substitution to inject some fresh legs into the equation. Nelsen, who, as a centre-back tends to prefer to hold what they have, rather than risk a change – and has shown a certain reticence to being proactive on such occasions - waited until Montreal had tied the match back at threes to finally reinvigorate his midfield with Justin Braun and Jeremy Hall – for Luis Silva and Darel Russell, respectively – though patently too late.
Brockie would sky a golden chance to add a fourth Toronto goal, moments after Warner entered, and as is so often the case, the momentum had shifted completely.
Warner would contribute directly to the first of Montreal’s two quick strikes: it was he who retreated back to midfield to pick up the pass from keeper Troy Perkins and deliver a ball to the edge of the box that fell between Ferrari and Camara before sitting up for the latter to smash home, drawing Montreal within one.
Now Toronto were shaking; they have not dealt well with the pressure of defending a lead all season and now they were facing a hungry Montreal at the cursed North End of the ground.
A minute and a half later Montreal had their second, Nyassi forced a low-percentage pass from right-back Richter; Lambe went down, looking for a call that never came, after Jeb Brovsky – freed to press forward to Toronto’s dropping deep – got an intercepting touch between his legs, and Felipe picked up the loose ball at the top of the box threading through to Di Vaio to level.
Toronto were lucky to hold on for the draw; Brockie hit the post, but the momentum had been swung and Montreal had the better of the final chances.
In truth, the Montreal comeback began at the end of the first half - when Di Vaio was allowed to get in the face of Joe Bendik, taking offense at some imaginary contact he saw when Bendik clattered into Camara - and there were a myriad of factors that contributed to the reversal of fortunes, but they were all consolidated by the introduction of Warner and how he turned the tides of the midfield battle for good.