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5 things noticed in Toronto FC’s 2-1 thriller over Atlanta to advance to 2019 MLS Cup Final

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What a time. Let’s talk about what went down at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday night.

Toronto FC v Atlanta United - Eastern Conference Finals
Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC and teammates lift the trophy following the Eastern Conference Finals between Atlanta United and Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 30, 2019
(Mandato/Getty)

TORONTO, Ont.—Wednesday night wasn’t the prettiest 90 minutes of football for Toronto FC, but once again, the Reds found a way to get things done, topping the defending MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United FC 2-1 in front of their rowdy home crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

What a time TFC fans. While it’s great to look at the bigger picture — like we get to see the third installment of the Toronto-Seattle trilogy — there was still plenty of action to dissect between the lines.

So, celebrate and enjoy some morning content. The Reds are in the 2019 MLS Cup Finals. Here are five things we noticed shortly after the match in TFC’s historic win in the dirty South.


Quentin Westberg

Let’s get one thing straight: We wouldn’t be having any MLS Cup Final conversations if it weren’t for the heroics of Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.

The 33-year-old has been in peak form, making a save on every single shot he’s had a chance on — and even some he hasn’t.

If Westberg doesn’t come up big on the Josef Martinez penalty attempt, adding to his prolific 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs highlight reel, the Reds would be down 2-0, facing an enourmous hill to climb. He finished the night with four saves, but his impact stretched far beyond the stat sheet.

What a story the French-born U.S. international has been since his arrival to MLS in February. Here’s more on Westberg in Gianluca Lia’s feature here.

A group of fighters

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now. 2019 Toronto FC have established an identity: they’re difficult to beat.

Despite being outplayed for most of the match Wednesday night, conceding possession to Atlanta (59 per cent to 41), the Reds once again found a way to earn a positive result.

Over the course of their magical playoff run, Toronto has been tested immensely. And while they’ve wavered, they haven’t broken — something that TFC coach Greg Vanney said his side has prided themselves on heading into the post-season. I mean, a club simply doesn’t get lucky for 13 straight contests (the Reds are unbeaten in their last 13 matches), especially on the road and in the playoffs. It takes a collective effort, and TFC have bought in.

With most of the league opting to roll head-to-head with pure talent, Vanney has taken a different approach when selecting his Starting XI during this playoff run: relentless hard work, grit, and team chemistry. Is there a tougher, harder working midfield in MLS than Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Marky Delgado — not to mention super-sub Nick DeLeon?

Big-match moments are meant for big-match players

Speaking of DeLeon — wow. Two goals this MLS Cup Playoffs, two absolute screamers.

Tonight’s appearance for DeLeon in the Eastern Conference Final was special for many reasons. It wasn’t just about his 30-yard screamer. When TFC offered little-to-nothing moving forward, it was DeLeon’s confidence, strength, and presence he brought with him on the pitch that made him a difference maker tonight.

The veteran midfielder, who entered the match early in the second half, led by example.

It took 20 minutes for Toronto FC to get going after the break, a frustrating and stressful spell of football for the Reds, where they were dominated by ATL. Their only sniff at Atlanta’s box that the Reds got in the opening moments of the second 45’ came via an inspiring run by DeLeon, where he shook off two defenders in Toronto’s half to keep the play alive.

While his run ultimately didn’t result in anything tangible, it seemed to inspire those around him, bringing back a sense of confidence and swagger into the TFC side — a testament to his impact this season.

The American’s emergence for Toronto FC has easily been one of the better stories around the league this year.

Super Subs

Once again, Toronto FC’s head coach came through. Where are all those #VanneyOut fans now?

After a disastrous start to the match, one in which TFC got their tactics completely wrong trying to play a high defensive line against a quick counter-attacking offense, the Reds adjusted.

At the end of the opening 45’, Vanney told Kristian Jack that he needed to make a change to his team’s shape. He did that by using two quick subs to start the second half, bringing on defender Richie Laryea for winger Tsubasa Endoh, and the aforementioned DeLeon for Nicolas Benezet, who was playing a more attacking role at the time.

In fact, the Toronto FC manager used all three of his subs before Atlanta used one of theirs — but it paid off.

Both Laryea and DeLeon were incredible for the Reds down the stretch, especially defensively, while Patrick Mullins, the third TFC substitution, provided a much-needed aerial presence with Omar Gonzalez on the bench.

Vanney, who notched his club-leading 99th career victory with Wednesday night’s win over Atlanta, has been known to change things up mid-game, frustrating TFC fans over the course of the regular season at times. Well, now we have a reason to Vanney’s madness.

The Reds have become a Swiss-army knife: a versatile unit, comfortable and capable of playing various different styles of football, and so far, it’s working out for TFC.

Nerves of Steel

What does it take to leave your best defender on the bench in a single-elimination game?

A lot of trust.

A lot of trust in 34-year-old Laurent Ciman who has found his stride with Toronto FC at the perfect time. While he struggled with the Reds since his arrival prior to the start of the season, the Belgian-born defender has done everything of late that TFC could’ve asked of him, and then some.

Keep in mind that Ciman found out an hour before Toronto FC’s opening-round playoff match against D.C. United that he would be in the lineup. Three matches later, and the former MLS Defender of the Year has established himself as a pivotal leader at the back for the Reds in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs; who would’ve thought?

His ability to pick a pass — as we saw on Benezet’s goal — allows Toronto to play more freely in a False 9. Instead of hold up play at our strikers, we have the ability, especially with Westberg, to keep the ball at the back instead of easily conceding possession. It’ll be interesting to see if Vanney elects to roll with the hot hand and keep Ciman in once again, or if he’ll opt to return to the ever-stable Omar Gonzalez. Either way, it’s a good problem to have because Toronto FC is in the 2019 MLS Cup Final.