In five nights, Toronto FC went from never winning an MLS playoff game, or even playing host to one, to a post-season winning streak.
With star players Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley once again leading the charge and powered by 28,220 screaming fans at BMO Field, the Reds downed New York City FC 2-0 Sunday night in the first game of the two-leg MLS Eastern Conference semi-final. That gave them two consecutive playoff wins, as the Reds downed the Philadelphia Union 3-1 last Wednesday in the knockout round.
The shutout was an important achievement, as the first tiebreaker in the two-game, total-goal series is away goals. The second game is Nov. 6 in New York at Yankee Stadium.
Reds coach Greg Vanney had his players on the attack all night against a New York defence that is known for coughing up goals - 57 this season. The New York defenders gamely held off TFC for most of the night but finally wilted in the last six minutes of the game.
"The guys stayed relentless," Vanney said. "They searched for goals all game and were finally rewarded. The crowd gave us energy. For me, it was far and away the greatest night on the field.
"Because we kept the tempo high and were relentless in our pressure, the crowd helped. It's something I've never seen before, after a game, the interaction between the fans and our players."
That interaction, another post-game celebration where the players joined the fans as they did after beating Philadelphia, was finally set in motion in the 84 minute. Altidore sent the fans into a frenzy when the ball popped loose in the box after another TFC rush. The ball came right to Altidore on the right side and he drilled it into the open side of the net to set off an explosion of sound as he jumped into the stands.
Then, two minutes into extra time, substitute Tosaint Ricketts, who was involved in Altidore's goal one minute after getting into the game, booted in his own rebound to nail down the first leg. Vanney sent Ricketts in as a third striker to put more pressure on New York's four-man back line, as the visitors appeared content to play to a 0-0 finish.
"0-0 is not the worst result ever but it was not our intention to stick it out [for a tie]," Vanney said. "They had four guys deep to cover our two so I knew I could add another attacker."
The coach gambled that Ricketts' speed would ratchet up the pressure on the New York defence enough to break it.
"Tosaint is like a little secret weapon – I don't know how secret anymore. The last thing you want to do as a tired defender is chase that guy," Vanney said.
"Every single guy who stepped on the field tonight came up big," said Bradley, who once again was a one-man defensive wall for TFC. He continually stripped the ball from New York attackers or knocked it away.
Said fellow TFC defender Drew Moor, "Michael was the engine tonight."
The win even had Giovinco dreaming a little. "If we continue to play like this, I really believe we can go all the way to the end," he said.
There was one surprise as the teams drew close to the opening kickoff. New York star midfielder Andrea Pirlo was scratched from the lineup. He practiced with the team on Saturday but apparently sustained a calf-muscle injury.
New York coach Patrick Vieira said he did not know if Pirlo will play in the second game. "We have to go back home and see," he said.
Pirlo's absence left the visitors with two of their three designated players on the sideline, as midfielder Frank Lampard started the game on the bench. He, too, has been dealing with a calf injury and did not enter the game until the 61 minute. He had a yellow card by the end, one of five New York players to get one in the intense, physical game.
Also, goalkeeper Eirik Johansen appeared in just his second game of the season. This had nothing to do with injuries but simply with a gamble by Vieira that the 24-year-old Johansen might shore up his team's porous defence better than Josh Saunders, 35, who played 33 games prior to being replaced one game previously against the Columbus Crew. Johansen did not show any youthful jitters, made a few nice saves and could not be blamed in the loss.
The game grew increasingly confrontational. By the 73 minute, referee Silviu Petrescu had issued six yellow cards, five of them to NYCFC. Jack Harrison, Maxime Chanot, Mikey Lopez, Federico Bravo and Lampard drew the yellow cards for New York.
Since a yellow card in the playoffs means a one-game suspension for a second one, Vieira was not happy with the large number handed out to his players. He thought Petrescu's calls were influenced by the noisy Toronto crowd.
"[TFC] got a lot of motivation from their fans," Vieira said. "That had an impact on some of the referee's decisions."
The only TFC player to get one was midfielder Armando Cooper, for some of his rough handling of Villa, who was clearly frustrated with the attention. Cooper himself was bumped around a little, which resulted in a few of the usual prostrate-on-the-pitch dramatics.
After one of their collisions, Villa kicked Cooper on the back of the leg. While it was not a particularly vicious blow, the Reds think MLS should suspend Villa for the second game.
"Any other day, any other league, that is a suspension," Vanney said. "It's just not something that is acceptable. But whatever happens, happens."