Hobbled Jozy Altidore brings MLS Cup final back to Toronto's BMO Field
Inexorable. That’s the word that ultimately describes Toronto FC’s journey to a second consecutive MLS Cup final.
Given the manner in which the Reds ran away with the Supporters Shield, it shouldn’t be. A twelve point gap between them and nearest pursuit, NYCFC, league bests in most goals (74) and least conceded (37), meaning that on average they doubled up opponents, would make one think words such as unstoppable or irresistible should apply. Inexorable puts in mind a much slower grind than Toronto’s regular season performance demonstrated.
The 90-minute romps became slogs beginning with the second leg in the Eastern Conference semifinals, however.
The desperate New York Red Bulls resorted to organised crime in an effort to keep their season alive. The New Yorkers played Hack-a-Shaq with TFC talisman Sebastian Giovinco, who is perhaps as far removed from 7’ 1” and 326 pounds as any athlete in a professional team sport can be at 5’ 4”, 137.
While his mates harried the diminutive Italian, Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan focused on Toronto’s big man, Jozy Altidore, maintaining a running battle with him throughout the first half, then ambushing him in the tunnel during the intermission. Both were red-carded.
Although Red Bulls won the match, they lost the tie on away goals. Giovinco’s yellow for eventually retaliating also ruled him out for the Reds first leg in the conference final against Columbus.
Without their two main scoring threats, TFC conducted a holding action in Ohio, keeping the tie goalless for the return to BMO field and a full-strength XI.
MLS fans and pundits expected a reckoning in the home leg. Columbus had other ideas. Coach Gregg Berhalter inverted his midfield, transforming the Crew’s usual 4-2-3-1 into a 3-4-2-1. The change initially choked off service to Giovinco and Altidore and allowed the visitors to counterattack.
On 20’ the Yellow and Black broke out. Federico Higuain, Gonzalo’s brother, carried the ball down the right flank. Crossing midfield he feathered a perfect diagonal through two defenders to an onrushing Ola Kamara. The Norwegian quickly squared the ball to Justin Meram, joining him from the left.
Only, Toronto captain Michael Bradley chased the entire play. Watching him barrel down on Meram to execute a perfect sliding tackle with the US-born Iraqi international poised to shoot makes you wonder about the American's many critics. Bradley’s game may not be as polished as his scalp, allegedly used to warn ships off the coast in the offseason, but the midfielder is all guts and heart. His defensive run was a strong statement regarding the entire squad’s desire.
Buoyed by his example, Toronto fashioned a chance from a corner less than five minutes later. Victor Vazquez’s inch perfect delivery forced defender Josh Williams to foul his man directly in front of goal. Keeper Zack Steffen had his back, though, diving to the right to palm away Vazquez’s spot kick.
Columbus held off a furious Toronto onslaught until halftime. At some point during the battle in the box, Jozy Altidore re-tweaked his ankle injury. The big man struggled noticeably in the second half, coming to the sideline for treatment twice.
He soldiered on, however, and found himself on hand when Giovinco took it upon himself to post up a defender as though he was in fact Shaquille O’Neal. Holding his man off, the precocious former Juventus man back-heeled to a passing Altidore. The big man worked a give-and-go with a waiting Vazquez, bursting into the box to Steffen’s left, a defender half a step behind. Altidore looped his shot over the keeper’s right arm into the far side-netting, then raced for the corner flag in a gimpy sprint to celebrate.
Toronto will have to wait until 7.30 pm Pacific this evening to see whether defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders can preserve their 2-0 away goal advantage over Houston Dynamo in front of 45,000 emerald green-clad supporters at CenturyLink Field. That’s 2.30 am Greenwich Mean. So, you spoiled, decadent Europeans who can't go without your beauty rest will be forgiven for missing it.
Whichever side prevails in the Western Conference, Altidore will have time to heal without travel. The one perk for winning the Supporters Shield is the right to host the MLS Cup final, if a team can reach it. Toronto has. They’ll be looking to level accounts with the Sounders, who eked out a penalty shootout triumph over them last year. Or they’ll be trying to defuse the Dynamo. Either way, Bradley’s competitive fire and Altidore’s determination to play through pain make TFC’s intent clear. All that remains is to finish the job.