Sweet redemption for Altidore & Co. as Toronto books MLS Cup final date
TORONTO -- Toronto FC booked a place in the 2017 MLS Cup final, as Jozy Altidore's second-half goal was enough to give TFC a 1-0 aggregate victory over the Columbus Crew.
Here are three thoughts on Toronto's win:
1. Altidore, Giovinco deliver in the clutch
For 60 minutes, it looked as if Crew manager Gregg Berhalter was winning the tactical battle with Toronto counterpart Greg Vanney. Berhalter's five-man backline looked to be keeping TFC's attack at arms length, and was effective at limiting the touches for Altidore and Giovinco. One was also left to wonder if the three-week layoff for both players -- because of suspension and the international window -- meant they had acquired too much rust to be the kind of difference-makers they had been during the regular season.
The rest of the Toronto lineup was no more effective. The home side appeared set to go on top in the first half when Columbus defender Josh Williams hauled down Toronto's Drew Moor during a corner, resulting in a penalty. But Vasquez saw his 26th-minute spot kick superbly saved by Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, and the accumulating tension began to suffocate the sellout crowd of 30,392 at BMO Field.
Vanney applied a tactical switch of his own at halftime, bringing in Marky Delgado for Eriq Zavaleta and switching to a back-four system.
Shortly into the half, Altidore appeared to be hobbled by an ankle injury. He looked poised to go off, but instead called the trainers over, taped up the ankle, and opted to continue.
Toronto was no doubt thrilled at Altidore's perseverance, as he changed the match irrevocably on the hour mark. Giovinco received a pass with his back to goal, did superbly to hold the ball up and found Altidore with a clever back heel. The Toronto forward then worked a quick combination with Vasquez, giving Altidore his first clear look at goal all night, and duly fired past Steffen to give Toronto the lead. The resulting explosion of joy shook BMO Field to its very core.
Chances were scarce thereafter, and there were some anxious moments late, as one ball just evaded Ola Kamara with the Crew striker on the doorstep. But the likes of Giovinco, Vasquez, and Altidore delivered when it mattered most. Now Toronto will host the MLS Cup final for the second year running.
For Altidore the goal was filled with just as much emotion. The last two months have seen him deal with the disappointment of the U.S. national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup, and he's been the brunt of boos while on the road. Altidore's suspension for the first leg was another negative. But his goal and subsequent celebration saw him nearly jump out of the stadium, and showed just how much the goal meant to him.
2. Destiny denied for Columbus
Oct. 16 remains a dark day in Crew history. It was on that day that owner Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring the possibility of moving the team to Austin, Texas. And while that has understandably created considerable angst within the team's fanbase, the team had responded in remarkable fashion, getting the results it needed in the postseason to think that a second MLS Cup final in three years was possible.
Alas, Columbus couldn't find a way past a talented Toronto side that had just a bit more defensive solidity and composure in front of goal in crucial moments.
That latter factor is one that will haunt Justin Meram as he squandered a great chance in the 21st minute. Federico Higuain's defense-splitting pass found Kamara on the run, and the Norway international's perfectly-weighted pass to Meram appeared to have Toronto keeper Alex Bono at his mercy. But a heavy touch from Meram allowed Michael Bradley to recover and tackle the ball away, and the chance was gone.
Aside from Altidore's goal, not much else went wrong on the night for Columbus, but in the postseason that is often all it takes to be eliminated. Now the Crew faces an uncertain future. Precourt seems eager to move the team out of Columbus, no matter how many options the city's business and political leaders give him. A reported offer by MLS to let Columbus apply for an expansion team seems to only rub salt into an already gaping wound.
With the team now eliminated, a Crew fanbase that has already endured plenty will have only the team's fate to think about for the rest of the offseason.
3. Is the best yet to come for Toronto?
TFC defender Drew Moor admitted before the match that his side hadn't played its best in the postseason. Rhythm has been difficult to come by because of the lengthy layoff and aforementioned suspensions. One might argue that is still the case, in spite of Wednesday's win.
That Toronto has managed to get results, despite not playing its best can be cited as a positive. TFC has shown grit in both postseason rounds, and Vanney has displayed plenty of tactical flexibility throughout the postseason. Best of all, Altidore and Giovinco will have had a chance to regain a semblance of form ahead of the Dec. 9 final.
There seems no reason to think that this Toronto team will get ahead of itself, or allow complacency to creep in. All it has to do is think back to last year's MLS Cup final defeat to the Seattle Sounders to snap it back to reality.
There will also be excitement. Toronto has a chance to be the first double-winners since the LA Galaxy in 2011.
If it does so, and given its exploits over the course of the season, it will no doubt go down in the history books as the best team in MLS history.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.