Toronto FC suffered one last great disappointment after a long and difficult season as they fell 1-0 to a dominant CF Montréal in the Canadian Championship on Sunday afternoon.
It has been a bleak season for Toronto FC. Despite loads of initial momentum, the Reds limped to their worst conference placement in team history, allowing an ungodly 66 goals by season’s end. With lots of offseason questions looming about personnel—as well as a dazzling national side, featuring several TFC players, acting as a cruel mirror to their efforts—there was an abundance of convoluted emotions going into the 401 derby.
To make things even more flippant, the war torn Reds would be facing off against rivals and fellow postseason absentees CF Montréal. The air before the game for one of desperation for both sides: the need for some kind, any kind, of vindication before a period of bitter but necessary change.
Going into the match, Toronto would also be dealing with a depleted roster, an unfamiliar formation, as well as several missing players—the most notable of which seeming also to be the most metaphorical: Toronto’s purest Montréal-killer Jozy Altidore was missing from the starting XI due to illness. Considering his and many other players doubtful future with the club, and despite his uneven performance throughout the year, it added a bittersweet note to the contest even before it began.
From the jump, Montréal looked hungry. On the very first play a beautiful tic-tac-toe through the Reds’ defence almost resulted in a goal, but a strong save by Quentin Westberg kept things level.
A VERY early chance for CF Montreal!— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) November 21, 2021
Hopefully that wakes up the Reds pic.twitter.com/nQI7lCli8k
TFC stabilized somewhat, and created a few openings themselves, but through 10 minutes CFM held a tentative edge.
At the 16th minute Toronto’s unsteadiness worsened. A quiet injury ended once-MVP Alejandro Pozuelo’s day with little ceremony. His look of dejection and a sort of naked frustration seemed talismanic of the Toronto’s ill-fated campaign this year.
As the game furthered, the Reds were better able to understand Montréal’s formation and begin poking holes in the defence. However, Montréal’s offence were producing more and more venom as they came into form. They frequently and easily dispatched Toronto’s front three attackers, creating a bubble of space inside Toronto’s half that would send the Reds into disarray. Several chances went achingly close.
By the 30th minute CFM was in clear control. They were monopolizing ball movement, working the ball through strong passing lanes largely unimpeded, as Toronto struggled to keep the game even, let alone push the ball to their own attackers or create any legitimate opportunity.
Worse, the defence as well as midfield were making oddly risky, often greedy plays under Montréal’s pressure, instead of making more guaranteed moves like clearing.
As the game neared its half Montréal built their poise ever more, generating chance after offensive chance, often outworking Toronto with superior practical tactics and movement. TFC maintained parity solely through the efforts of Westberg and a carnival variety of anguished defensive flailing.
In retrospect, their atypical 4-3-1-2 formation relied heavily on a lynchpin Pozuelo to negotiate the front and back lines. Without him there the defense and midfield were working together like they spoke different languages.
Conversely, CF Montréal’s familiar 3-4-3 tie-fighter formation was working perfectly. They were able to layer on lots of offence and pick apart Toronto, while also rebuttling the little Toronto might muster in return.
While they opened with promise, at the 45 the Reds looked undressed.
Montréal resumed the second half with a burst of pace, and resumed being the front running team in the game. Toronto simply looked lost, unsure of what to do or how to make it happen even if they did.
At the 57th minute Joel Waterman gave Jacob Shaffelburg a somewhat unwieldly shove (followed shortly thereafter by a humourously territorial return shove by Soteldo), which broke up the slow doom only long enough for Toronto FC fans to realize that it was a sincere miracle the game was still even.
Sorry but I love this pic.twitter.com/POXCmKKTcg— Eric Giacometti (@Eric_Giacometti) November 21, 2021
The tip of Montréal’s spear Romell Quioto continued to unravel Toronto’s defence wherever he want, pulling players sharply out of position while his wingmen would establish themselves in dangerous positions across the box. Through 71 minutes the CFM shooting gallery was making things seem more and more inevitable. At the 72nd minute it became real.
A sublime long distance lob over TFC’s listless defence found Quioto himself, who gracefully mimicked his gift over the head of a helpless Westberg.
Just a little too easy for Montrealpic.twitter.com/GkFVtLzbna— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) November 21, 2021
With the onus now fully on Toronto to respond, inspiration was going to need to come like a lightning bolt. Javier Pérez brought on Yeferson Soteldo, Noble Okello, and Nick DeLeon to perhaps stir a storm.
As the game settled into its closing ten minutes, Montréal settled into a deliberately more defensive posture. TFC saw a bit more of the ball, but continued to do little with it. Every turnover was money for CFM, who easily reverted to a sieging formation, chewing up as much time as possible while pitilessly reminding Toronto of their own dominance from ages past.
As the game grew late, Toronto’s players were getting more and more agitated. They were moving with an uncaged physicality, getting into spats with CFM’s players as well as the referee. While passion is a driving force in all sports, it was hard to see all of it as anything but helplessness.
At the 90th minute, a breathless moment. A scuffled ball from a DeLeon run found it’s way bouncing to Jordan Perruzza, who made awkward contact and hit the post on a relatively free goal.
Suddenly, from nowhere, the sound of thunder in the distance. To quote the commentator, it took TFC 90 minutes to wake up. There was a flurry of activity and pushing and moving from TFC and for just a moment, Montréal seemed shaken.
However, in the end, the hope, the possibility, it all soon fizzled for Toronto as CFM was able to remain sturdy and see the game out.
When the whistle blew, the cold truth was that injured, disjointed, confused, and broken, TFC simply lost to a better team. And ultimately, they were not a unit. The missed goal was a crushing coda to an equally maddening era for the Reds.
But maybe that’s the brutal lesson Toronto FC needs, as does their fans. While it’s no good to jump to conclusions or burn bridges without time to truly see something’s endurance, there also comes a time when mending is not enough.
The offseason for the Reds will be interesting, to say the least, but it appears due season for the old to be replaced with the new. Disappointment is everywhere, undoubtedly, but for a fleeting moment in that game, we all remembered what it felt like to be winners. To look Toronto FC and recall the feelings of contention and glory; to feel that no matter the deficit, anything is possible. That is the feeling that should guide all of us into whatever comes next—not that we failed, but that in every failure there is naught but great potential.