Toronto FC down the Union to set up mouth-watering NYCFC clash
Toronto FC beat the Philadelphia Union in the first knockout match of the 2016 MLS Cup playoffs on goals from Sebastian Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio and Jozy Altidore. The win was the Reds' first postseason victory since they joined the league in 2007.
The victory puts TFC into the Eastern Conference semifinals, and they will host New York City FC on Sunday in the opening game of the two-match, total goals series.
Here are three talking points from Wednesday's match:
1. TFC makes history
A year after being embarrassed in their playoff debut with a 3-0 loss at Canadian rival Montreal Impact, the revamped Reds lived up to the billing.
Sure, they entered the game as heavy favorites over the sputtering Union. But that meant there was real pressure on Greg Vanney's well-balanced side -- one that posted the best record in club history, thanks in large part to the addition of proven MLSers such as defenders Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour -- to execute and advance.
Vanney appeared determined to get the upper hand early, as he trotted out an aggressive 3-5-2 (though it doubled as a 5-3-2), with usual full-backs Justin Morrow and Beitashour deployed high on the flanks.
The move provided TFC some extra width to their attack, and they were able to capitalize on the added space after just 15 minutes, when star striker Giovinco -- who else? -- got on the end of a broken play that began with a mishit by Philly defender Ken Tribbett to give the home team a lead it never relinquished.
The strike seemed to settle the nerves of the Reds and their fans, and their confidence only grew when Osorio found the net just after the break. Alejandro Bedoya made it interesting when he pulled one back with about 20 minutes to play before Altidore ended the suspense late.
2. Good season, difficult finish for Philly
As gut-churning as Wednesday's loss was, the Union made measurable progress under the stewardship of new sporting director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin.
Philadelphia qualified for the playoffs for the first time in five years and just the second time since entering MLS as an expansion team in 2010. The club spent much of the season near the top of the East before stumbling over its final eight games and ending 2016 on a miserable 0-6-2 swoon.
The late-season acquisition of U.S. national team midfielder Bedoya as a designated player didn't have the hoped for impact, and Curtin & Co. clearly missed veteran striker Sebastian Le Toux, who was dealt to the Colorado Rapids on trade deadline day.
Even so, Bedoya will benefit from a full preseason next winter, Rookie of the Year candidate Keegan Rosenberry will be a year older, and Curtin and Stewart, who erased any doubts about their ability to work together, will undoubtedly bolster a squad that will lose Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta to St. Gallen in his home country.
3. Star-studded conference semi versus NYCFC awaits
Toronto's emphatic victory sets up an intriguing matchup with fellow big-spenders New York City FC.
The Reds will welcome NYCFC and its world-famous trio of DPs Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa (not to mention coach Patrick Vieira) north of the border to open the two-match series. With TFC boasting 2015 league MVP Giovinco plus U.S. stars Altidore and captain Michael Bradley, there has never been so much high-priced talent on display between playoff foes.
That will make the two-leg tilt must-see TV for MLS fans, regardless of which team they support.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.