Substitute Nick DeLeon scored in the 78th minute as Toronto FC rallied to beat defending champion Atlanta United FC 2-1 Wednesday and advance to the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years.
DeLeon took a pass from Alejandro Pozuelo, pivoted at the edge of the penalty box to make room for his shot and curled the ball high into the Atlanta goal over a diving Brad Guzan. Atlanta, which had controlled most of the second half, was furious believing DeLeon had fouled a player in the buildup to the goal.
Atlanta pressed in the final minutes but Toronto held out for five nerve-wracking minutes of stoppage time with Quentin Westberg making a key reflex save at the near post to preserve the win. Guzan came up for the ensuing corner but Toronto cleared the danger.
Toronto advances to face the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final Nov. 10, this time in the Pacific Northwest. Second-seeded Seattle upset league-leading Los Angeles FC 3-1 on Tuesday in the Western Conference final at Banc of California Stadium.
Toronto lost to the Sounders in a penalty shootout in 2016, avenging that loss with a 2-0 win in the 2017 championship game. Both matches were at BMO Field.
Julian Gressel scored in the fourth minute for Atlanta, which looked for an early knockdown in the matchup of last two MLS Cup winners. Westberg threw Toronto a lifeline when he saved a Josef Martinez penalty in the 11th minute, preventing the home side from doubling the lead.
Nicolas Benezet then scored three minutes later for Toronto to restore order.
The wild opening turned into a tense, cagey second half. Tied at 1-1, Atlanta dominated possession with Toronto willing to foul to snuff out the threats.
Wednesday’s game was played before an announced crowd of 44,055 under the dome at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the retractable roof closed thanks to a downpour outside.
It proved to be a wild opening. Toronto stroked the ball around for the opening minutes from kickoff only to see things suddenly go south.
Ezequiel Barco opened up the Toronto defence with a seeing-eye diagonal ball that bypassed Josef Martinez and found Pity Martinez all alone with only Westberg to beat. With three Toronto defenders racing to catch up, Pity Martinez unselfishly sent the ball over to an unmarked Gressel for an easy tap-in.
It went from bad to worse when a penalty was awarded to Atlanta after Michael Bradley took down Pity Martinez, who had been sent in alone by Jeff Larentowicz. The penalty call survived a video review and then Westberg dove to his right and got a hand on the Josef Martinez spot kick. Bradley was cautioned on the play.
Toronto responded in the 14th minute when a fine long ball from centre back Laurent Ciman found Benezet cutting in on the left flank. The French winger slashed towards the edge of the penalty box and curled in a marvellous shot that beat a diving Guzan.
Atlanta had not allowed a goal in 419 postseason minutes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Westberg made back-to-back fine saves in the 37th and 38th minutes, parrying a hard Gressel shot from a sharp angle before getting a hand to a curling long-range Pity Martinez effort.
TFC changed formation, shifting to a back three flanked by wingbacks, with Richie Laryea coming in for Tsubasa Endoh at the half. Atlanta controlled the game early in the second half with Toronto offering some hard-noise defence in response.
DeLeon came on in the 54th minute for Benezet as Toronto rang in the changes.
Still Atlanta came on with Josef Martinez hitting the side netting in the 58th minute. Westberg stopped Josef Martinez again with another fine save in the 66th minute, although the play was called for offside.
Patrick Mullins came in for the injured Auro in the 68th minute as Toronto coach Greg Vanney, wearing a scarf indoors perhaps for luck, used his last sub. Toronto reverted to a back four.
Toronto was without striker Jozy Altidore (quad) for the third playoff game in a row. The big man was deemed a game-time decision after arriving late in Atlanta because of a second MRI back home. Clearly the news was not good.
Centre back Omar Gonzalez, who missed the playoff opener against D.C. United, started on the bench for the second game in a row.
Still Toronto fielded the same starting lineup for the third straight time in the postseason.
The injury news was better for Atlanta, which had captain Michael Parkhurst back at the heart of its defence after dislocating his shoulder Oct. 19 against New England. Defender Miles Robinson (hamstring) remains out.
Toronto is now unbeaten in its last 13 games (7-0-6) with its last loss a 2-0 setback Aug. 3 at the New York Red Bulls. TFC has still never lost a playoff game outside of Canada.
Atlanta was unbeaten in its last four outings (3-0-1) and had lost just once in its last seven outings (5-1-1).
Atlanta had also won its last five home playoff games. And it had conceded just one goal in six home playoff games all-time.
TFC, which finished eight points behind Atlanta in the regular season, came into the game with a career 2-1-3 record against the Five Stripes but had never won at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (0-1-2).
Second-seeded Atlanta defeated No. 7 New England 1-0 and No. 3 Philadelphia 2-0 to reach the Eastern final. Fourth-seeded Toronto downed No. 5 D.C. United 5-1 after extra time and No. 1 NYCFC 2-1 on a stoppage-time penalty.