It had been one of the most exciting playoff games in Major League Soccer history, but BMO Field was deathly silent. Early in extra time last night Sebastian Giovinco fell to the ground clutching his leg, and it became clear he could not continue.
For a club whose fortunes these past two seasons have been so intertwined with the play of the diminutive Italian, it was a nightmare scenario. Just when Toronto FC needed his ability to change a game the most, he was no longer a part of it.
It ended up being a monumental moment in the match, but for a different reason than expected: it forced the introduction of Benoit Cheyrou. The French veteran scored the game’s winning goal moments later on a diving header, his first touch of the match.
For Toronto FC fans, this was just one of the memorable moments of a night that they won’t soon forget. Last night’s 5-2 Conference Final victory (7-5 on aggregate) over rival Montreal Impact had a bit of everything.
“The excitement of the two games, the quantity of goals, the amount of attacking, and back and forth, the twists and turns, I can’t imagine the experience and the emotions that people went through,” said Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney after the match. “For me the most exciting playoff event that I have ever been a part of and one that I have seen.”
There were moments of doubt, which only made the elation that followed that much sweeter. When Montreal, and Dominic Oduro of all people, scored early in the match. When Piatti dribbled a ball over the line early in the second half after TFC had fought so hard to get ahead. Giovinco going down with injury.
The Italian, however, appears to be okay. Both coach and player after the match said that he should be fine for the MLS Cup final, which takes place in ten days. Breathe easy, Toronto.
The match took several twists that appeared to be headed down the dark path to disappointment that has become so familiar for this franchise. But every time Toronto FC got knocked down, they came back twice as hard.
“We just have too many good players, too many good professionals,” Defender Drew Moor said of the team’s never say die attitude. “We’ve been through so much together that we just feel that we can get through anything.”
There were moments of redemption, most notably when Nick Hagglund scored a leaping header to send the match to extra time. Hagglund had been struggling defensively against the Impact but got his measure of revenge.
In fact, Hagglund was one of three TFC players to score their first goal of the season tonight. The others, Cheyrou and Armando Cooper, also did so amid trying times. Cooper had struggled heavily against the Impact to that point, while Cheyrou had barely seen any playoff action at all.
“You have to be deep to get this deep into the playoffs,” said Moor. “To get goals from guys who don’t always score is always a huge boost. They were monsters tonight.”
There were moments of chaos, where the match threatened to get out of hand, which always tends to happen when these two sides meet. Hernan Bernardello had his clock cleaned by Altidore early in the match and had to leave at half-time. Cooper could have had a penalty late in the first half. Dozens of other calls drew the ire of the players and the crowd.
All of this was set against the backdrop of the best crowd that this team has ever seen, and boy did they have moments to cheer, jeer, gasp and shout about. Before the game the south end exploded in a canopy a streamers, as fans had brought thousands of them in red and white to the stadium. The national anthem was spine-tingling, and got the home side off to an impressive start, even if they didn’t draw first blood.
“All week we spoke about what tonight could be,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley. “Obviously nobody knew for sure, but I think we all had an idea that it could be a special night in terms of atmosphere, emotion, in some ways 10 years of emotion coming out in one night.”
And, of course, there were moments of celebration well after the final whistle blew. There was the trophy hoisting by Toronto captain Michael Bradley. There was the beer soaked dressing room that followed. There was Jonathan Osorio, the Eastern Conference final championship cup in one hand, and a beer in the other, conducting interviews.
There was champagne in the Toronto dressing room, but it was unopened, assembled in the middle of the dressing room floor to spell out “TFC”. The players say that they are saving it for December 10.
It was a reminder that despite how special of a moment tonight was for the franchise, and all the fans who tuned in, even bigger moments lie ahead.
“When the lights come and everyone is watching you, these are the moments when you get a chance to really move the needle and I think we’ve done that,” said Bradley. “We’ve got one more game that can probably move the needle more than any game so far.”
It was only a Conference championship that Toronto FC won last night, still a game short of the expectation that this club sets for itself. But the way that it all played out means that the match will be talked about for some time.