As the final whistle blew, a spent Toronto FC captain Torsten Frings raised his arms in the air and then dropped them to his knees.
Three injections in two days to dull the pain of a damaged shoulder had apparently worn off.
A battered Frings and his Toronto teammates survived a red card and rode first-half goals by Reggie Lambe and Ryan Johnson to defeat the Montreal Impact 2-0 Wednesday night and advance to the final of the Amway Canadian Championship.
For Toronto, after eight straight leagues losses, the win was manna from heaven — and offered hope for a team that has been in a tailspin.
Now Toronto, which reached the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this season, has to recreate its cup prowess in league play.
“The way we played today, it's how we're supposed to play the whole season,” said Toronto goalkeeper Milos Kocic. “I hope we've found a way to win . . . Because we're probably the best Cup team in North America the last couple of years. We have to find a way to win the league games as well.
“We're still zero points in the league.”
Johnson, who finally ended a cruel run of luck in front of goal, saw light at the end of the TFC tunnel.
“If we put this effort into our future games, we can make a nice run,” said Johnson.
“We need the same passion like today in the (MLS) season,” said Frings.
Beleaguered TFC coach Aron Winter heaved a sigh of relief as he sat down for the post-match news conference. “Not nice,” his often repeated description of the league losing streak, was replaced with a big smile and “very good.”
Montreal manager Jesse Marsch was seething after the match, upset at the complacency against Toronto in the wake of an upset league win in Kansas City.
“I saw 11 guys that weren't ready for a real game,” he said.
“And if you show up to play like that, I don't care who it is, I don't care where you're going — especially in a cup match, it's an elimination game — you're going to get your ass whupped and that's what happened to us tonight. We were second on every single play.
“In the end, we just got outcompeted.”
Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 16th minute when English fullback Richard Eckersley got a straight red from referee David Gantar for a dangerous challenge.
“Our determination to win overcame the red card,” said Lambe.
Trailing by two at the break, the Impact attacked in waves in the second half but failed to show much accuracy in front of goal. Toronto, meanwhile, demonstrated character with some often desperate defending.
The teams went at each other all night, with plenty of ill-temper showing before a sparse crowd at BMO Field that looked far smaller than the announced figure of 15,016.
Gantar was heavy on the whistle, upsetting both sides.
At the final whistle, Marsch had to be separated from Toronto assistant Bob De Klerk.
Marsch declined comment on the incident while Winter, who had to hang on to De Klerk in the melee, said he wasn't sure what happened.
Toronto will meet the Vancouver Whitecaps in the two-legged final after advancing 2-0 on aggregate following last week's 0-0 draw in Montreal.
The Whitecaps defeated FC Edmonton 5-1 on aggregate after a 3-1 home win Wednesday. The first leg of the final will take place next Wednesday in Vancouver.
Toronto's win followed several days of team meetings and talks in the wake of a 2-0 loss to D.C. United.
Gone was the five-man backline. Toronto came out with a more attacking formation and showed an edge. The home side seemed to be operating in a higher gear than Montreal and took it to the Impact in an open first half, pressuring the visitors at every occasion.
When the Impact counter-attacked, often after some elegant passing, they failed to put shots on target.
Frings, a surprise starter after injuring his shoulder on the weekend, drove his side on from midfield. While not looking that mobile, he never stopped and, like his teammates, sacrificed his battered body when needed.
“The doctor told me it was only pain and we can fix it,” said Frings.
“It just shows you what kind of captain, what kind of personality he has,” Kocic said.
Said Winter: “He played very well . . . He's a real captain.”
Toronto usually has two pre-game huddles — one near the bench and one on the field. Kocic said Frings told the players to dispense with one, saying the time for talk was over.
Toronto scored in the second minute when Eric Avila's pass found the diminutive Joao Plata cutting into the box through a mass of defenders. His shot deflected over to Lambe on the right, and the Bermudian forward's shot went off a defender and into the corner of the goal.
The goal was the first conceded by Montreal in 290 minutes.
Johnson made it 2-0 in the 38th after Frings saved the ball from going out following a corner. The former German international drove the ball back into the box and, after a series of deflections, it found its way to Johnson who tapped it in.
Marsch made changes at halftime, bringing on Justin Mapp and Brazilian Felipe for Shavar Thomas and Patrice Bernier for a more offensive approach.
Toronto, meanwhile, looked to batten down the hatches, hoofing the ball down the field at times.
Toronto came into the game riding an eight-game losing streak in MLS and with a 1-9-3 record in all competitions this season. The team's lone previous win came March 14 when Toronto won 2-1 in Los Angeles in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Montreal, 3-5-2 in its inaugural MLS season, is now 0-6-2 against Toronto in Canadian championship play.
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