Toronto shows fight in thrilling first-leg loss against so far unstoppable Impact
MONTREAL -- Down 3-0 early in the second half against the Montreal Impact on Tuesday, Toronto FC could've packed it in. They could've capitulated in much the same manner as they did last year, when Montreal eliminated the rival Reds 3-0 in the knockout round in a game that wasn't even as close as that lopsided scoreline would imply.
But with the odds and all but a few thousand of the 61,004 screaming fans inside raucous Olympic Stadium against them, Toronto was able to claw its way back into this two-leg, total-goals Eastern Conference final and prove beyond a doubt that this is not the same old TFC.
Toronto still lost 3-2, of course. They'll still have to beat the hugely impressive Impact at home next Wednesday to advance to MLS Cup, and that is far from a foregone conclusion. Most of the pressure will be on the free-spending, big-market hosts and not the gritty and still-underrated contenders from Canada's second-largest city when next week's tilt kicks off.
Given the way Tuesday's match started, though, Toronto will gladly take it.
"There wasn't a TFC team before this that probably would've been able to dig themselves out of a hole like that," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said after Tuesday's contest. "That's a tribute to the character of this group."
Toronto found itself behind by a goal less than 10 minutes in, the first time it conceded since Oct. 26, when it beat the Philadelphia Union 3-1 to advance to the East semifinals. Then Toronto went down another, when Matteo Mancosu scored barley 90 seconds after Dom Oduro's well-taken opener.
Vanney blamed the poor start, at least in part, on the 25-minute delay to start the match. Just before kickoff, game officials discovered that the 18-yard boxes were 6 yards narrower than normal, forcing the lines to be repainted (and the originals covered up) while the teams remained in their respective dressing rooms deep in the bowels of the cavernous "Big O."
"It's a challenge for the players," Vanney said. "The guys came off the field, they were buzzing, they were ready to go. It's the biggest game of the year.
"It breaks their rhythm," he continued. "It's hard. I think there should be a process in place where somebody comes and checks all of those things before right before the match."
TFC captain Michael Bradley went as far as to suggest that it might not have been an accident.
"Probably not totally out of the realm of possibility that they did it on purpose, maybe," he said.
Whatever the reason for Toronto's early struggles, Vanney's second-half adjustments helped to stop the bleeding and give his team a fighting chance. He reverted to a four-man back line, pulled Sebastian Giovinco forward into a deeper position and made a shrewd double substitution -- inserting the speedy Tosaint Ricketts and defensive midfielder Will Johnson in the 57th minute. The moves tipped the match in the Reds' favor, with valuable away goals by Jozy Altidore and Bradley putting a title game appearance within reach next week when the sides meets at BMO Field.
"It would've been an easy night to pack it in, especially after the start we had, especially when they make the third. But we kept at it," Bradley said. "The mentality to keep going and find any way to walk out of here with a real chance was amazing. Now, we get 90 minutes in front of 36,000 people in Toronto to get ourselves into MLS Cup."
It will be the hardest 90 minutes they play all year. The Impact have answered every challenge in these playoffs. They've won all four of their games, including road victories at D.C. United in a play-in game and against Eastern Conference champs New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. Their counterattack has been close to unstoppable. Did we mention they also have the aggregate lead?
"Any advantage is an advantage," Montreal keeper Evan Bush said, echoing comments that Impact coach Mauro Biello had made moments before.
"They've got to score," Biello said. "When we go on the break, we have to hurt them. And if we hurt them, it puts us in a good situation."
After a thrilling first leg in Montreal, the series-decider promises to be every bit as compelling.
"I don't think there's a favorite going into this." Vanney said. "It's tight. It can go either way." If it ends up going Toronto's, the fighting spirit they showed in Montreal will be a major reason why.
"You don't get to a final, you don't win anything without having your backs up against the wall at some point," Bradley said. "You find out a lot about your group when things go up in smoke a little bit."
For a club that failed those tests time and again during its first nine seasons in MLS, Tuesday's response couldn't have been much better.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.