Toronto FC one win away from shot at MLS Cup redemption
Led by captain Michael Bradley, the Reds have been working towards returning to the championship game ever since a heartbreaking loss last December.
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A couple of days after Toronto FC’s MLS Cup final loss to the Seattle Sounders last December, Drew Moor and Michael Bradley were already on the same page about the coming season.
Moor felt oddly satisfied with the 2016 season the day after the Reds’ defeat. Losing the final was terrible, he said, but the team left everything it had on the field — to the defender, it felt a little bit like some otherworldly source didn’t want the team to win.
But when the captain and the veteran defender spoke in the aftermath of the loss, it was clear to both where they were going to lead their team, and the core group of players returning, next: on a path back to the MLS Cup final, one that required daily work to get there.
“As satisfied as I was then, it left a very bitter taste in our mouth and it has driven us this entire season and it has to continue to drive us,” Moor said.
Now, just one game stands between Toronto and that long anticipated final. The Reds will take on the Columbus Crew in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final at BMO Field on Wednesday night. A 0-0 road tie in the first leg means Toronto must win to advance.
Home field advantage, which the Reds earned by posting the league’s best regular season record, gives the team the sense that they get to dictate how their season ends. While Bradley called his squad “the best team in the regular season and it wasn’t all that close,” on Tuesday, he said the team is feeling confident ahead of the Crew’s visit, not weighed down by expectation.
“Games like tomorrow are why you play,” he said. “On the biggest nights, when everything’s on the line, these are the games that you want to be playing in. The players and the teams who embrace that and who aren’t fazed by it — who are ready to just step on the field and go for it, not worry about what ifs, not worry about anything else and just be ready in a fearless, aggressive way, go after the game, compete, leave everything on the field — those are typically the teams and the players that give themselves the best chance.”
Not being fazed has been paramount to Toronto’s playoff run this year. The team battled against a physical and emotional New York Red Bulls side in the semifinals, coming out on top despite a narrow loss in the second leg dominated by tussles rather than tactics. And the Reds got a result without both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco in the first game against Columbus, when the strikers were serving one-game suspensions.
“It wasn’t a perfect result, that’s for sure, because a perfect result would have meant a win, would have meant some away goals,” Bradley said. “But it was a mature, professional performance and it sets us up for, ultimately, what we’ve all wanted all season long, which is the chance to play in our stadium, in our city, with everything on the line, to put ourselves back in the final. In the end, if we don’t take care of things, then it will be tomorrow night that lets us down, not the first leg.”
Toronto expects playing against both Altidore and Giovinco to be a big adjustment for the Crew. Going from guarding one striker — Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts led the line alone for the Reds last week — to two is difficult enough, let alone bringing in two of the best in the league.
“I think in the first leg, for us, we could be content with getting a shutout and for them, I suppose they could be content with not giving an away goal but now, at the end of the day, they have to prevent us from scoring at home with these two incredibly dynamic and talented players. I think it’s different, it’s difficult and it’s going to be a challenge for them,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta.
If Columbus can keep Toronto off the board on Wednesday, kudos to them, Zavaleta said; they deserve to go through. But he isn’t fazed by that prospect.
“We like our chances with the best two forwards, in my opinion, in the league playing together.