Things didn’t go Toronto FC’s way for most of tonight’s match. While they were on the front foot, New York City FC proved to be a difficult opponent in more than one way in the opening match of the Eastern Conference semi-final.
After realising early on that Toronto was going to have the majority of possession and chances in the match, New York regressed to a cynical style of play. They tripped, prodded, goaded, tugged and kicked out at TFC players all night long, resulting in five yellow cards.
Bullying Toronto FC has been a successful tactic for New York City before, a club that had never lost to TFC going into tonight. But Toronto FC weathered the storm and found themselves a pair of late goals for a massive 2-0 victory at BMO Field.
“The intensity was excellent from start to finish,” Clint Irwin told Waking the Red after the match. “Playoffs are going to be chippy that’s just how it is. You play a team twice in close succession that’s just the nature of the game. But I thought we kept our heads.”
This was the type of game that Toronto FC would have lost earlier in the season. With calls going against them, against a stingy defensive opponent, they rarely found a late goal this season. Instead, they usually conceded, which admittedly they came close to doing during a rough patch around the 80th minute.
But a couple of Clint Irwin saves and some big defensive plays kept the game level, and Greg Vanney made a substitution that changed the game. Tosaint Ricketts can now rightly be called Toronto’s super sub, making another big impact in limited minutes.
Moments after coming on he caused enough chaos in the NYCFC box to see the ball squirt out to Jozy Altidore who buried it for the winner. In added time, he found the back of the net himself on a great second effort in the box after his initial shot was saved.
“Tosaint is like a secret weapon, although I don’t know how much it’s secret anymore,” said Vanney after the match. “With Tosaint’s speed and relentless running that’s the last thing you want to do as a defender is have to chase that guy. He just puts so much pressure on the backline.”
While Ricketts and Altidore were the goalscorers, the man of the match by a mile was the captain, Michael Bradley. He was everywhere tonight and set the tone for what Toronto were able to accomplish in this match. Lately, his game has gone to another level, and the team is following their leader.
“I thought he did an incredible job of covering ground and being in places to snuff things out,” said Vanney after the match. “I thought it was a phenomenal night, maybe one of the best nights I’ve ever seen from him with us.”
Bradley also played a big role in dealing well with one of the league’s best attackers: David Villa. The Spanish forward never really factored into the game as Nick Hagglund, Eriq Zavaleta and Drew Moor also did a good job of keeping him and the NYCFC attack goalless.
“We were trying to starve [Villa] of service and to press high up the field,” said Irwin. “We know they like to build from the back. Obviously, the coaches put together a great game plan to do that, and I feel like we executed that for the full 90 minutes.”
That was the key to Toronto FC getting an all-important clean sheet, meaning an even bigger advantage going into New York next Sunday. Irwin said that was a big part of the team’s goal going into this game.
He also said that the crowd played a huge part in what the team were able to do tonight, a sentiment echoed by all the Toronto FC players who spoke to media after the match. There was undoubtedly a special atmosphere at BMO Field tonight right from kickoff.
“It’s probably the best MLS atmosphere I’ve ever been in,” said Moor, who has played 13 seasons in the league. “It was unreal. These fans have been great all season but it seems like the last two games they’ve really taken hold of it.”
He says the team hopes to give the fans something to cheer about at BMO Field at least one more time this season, and with the way this match went that looks incredibly likely. The club is on the verge of something truly special.