Toronto FC enjoyed their greatest night in club history on Wednesday as they progressed to their first-ever MLS Cup final following a thrilling 5-2 win over Canadian rivals Montreal Impact at BMO Field that saw them clinch the Eastern Conference Championship series 7-5 on aggregate.
Toronto were 3-0 down after only 53 minutes of last week’s first leg in Montreal before going on grab two goals midway through the second half, and they found themselves behind again in the reverse fixture as Impact striker Dominic Oduro fired the visitors into the lead with 24 minutes gone.
Armando Cooper pulled one back for TFC in the 37th minute, however, before reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco teed up the in-form Jozy Altidore from a corner for the American striker to send a thumping header past Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush at the near post just before half time.
Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti later restored the Impact’s aggregate lead shortly after the break following a defensive mix-up in the Toronto box, but Nick Hagglund’s 68th-minute header from a Justin Morrow cross meant the series went to extra time.
The hosts looked like they had been dealt a blow in the 96th minute when Giovinco was forced off injured, but fate smiled on them just 92 seconds later as his replacement Benoit Cheyrou latched onto the end of a Steven Beitashour delivery and bundled home yet another headed goal.
Greg Vanney’s men were 6-5 up on aggregate at that point, but they made sure there would be no more late twists soon after when substitute Tosaint Ricketts scored off a fantastic ball from Altidore to ensure TFC will host Western Conference counterparts Seattle Sounders in the final on 10 December.
This season marks only the second time the club have made the playoffs in their 10-year MLS history after losing to Montreal in the Knockout Round last term, and the significance of their run to the title game was certainly not lost on captain Michael Bradley at the final whistle.
“There were so many twists and turns along the way—down 0-1; up 2-1; 3-2,” the US national team midfielder told MLSSoccer.com amid the celebrations. “At 3-2, it was on a knife’s edge. Your entire season plays out in 90 minutes and every player is going to err on the side of aggression.
“We all had an idea it could be a special night in terms of atmosphere, emotion. In some ways, 10 years of emotion came out in one night.”
Plenty of Toronto players put in heroic performances on the night, but nearly everyone was in agreement after the match that Altidore had been the star of the show.
After netting 10 times in 14 appearances over the second half of the regular season, the former Sunderland striker has proved just as impressive in the playoffs, becoming the first player to score in five consecutive games in one postseason with Wednesday night’s goal, while also recording four assists.
His work rate, movement and hold-up play repeatedly caused havoc in the Montreal defence throughout the 90 minutes and extra time, and head coach Vanney believes the 27-year-old forward may just be in the best form of his career now he has finally shaken off the nagging hamstring problems that hampered his performances during the early stages of the 2016 campaign.
“He feels great,” Vanney told MLSSoccer.com when asked about Altidore’s recent form and fitness. “He's flying, he's happy. He's showing what we all know he's capable of. I've always admired his power and strength. As he arrived here last year, I was incredibly surprised at how very good of a finisher he is, how precise he is technically. He is an incredibly well-rounded striker.
“A lot of the credit goes to him and everybody helping him get into a nice happy place that he can be himself, give everything he has every night. And you can see, he's an absolute monster out there. He's unstoppable when he gets going. He's been that for us in the playoffs.”
Altidore’s next task will be to find a way through Seattle’s backline in two Saturdays’ time, when he will hopefully have a fully fit Giovinco lining up alongside him.
The diminutive Italian’s late withdrawal against Montreal obviously caused some concern over his status for the final, but Vanney was quick to stress after the match that he was only suffering from cramp.
“He was cramping up; it's not much more than that,” the former USA defender explained. “He couldn't get it to go away. So he felt like him cramping on the field was not going to be advantageous at that time in the game. He'll be ready [for Seattle].”