The MLS Cup final will return to Toronto, whose MLS team, a long-standing mat, is now an Eastern Conference champion.
Driven by momentum, storytelling, a brilliant young goalkeeper and a shrewd tactical change, Columbus Crew came much closer than most expected to defeat the best team in the league. But in the end, Toronto FC's patience, precision and multimillionaire players made a difference.
Forward Jozy Altidore, who was struggling with a gimpy ankle, scored the only goal when the Reds defeated Columbus, 1-0, in the second leg of Wednesday night's conference in Toronto. The hosts won the two-game series for the same score after the no-goal tie last week in Ohio, and will get another shot at the grand prize on December 9.
Here are three ideas about who decides, absorbing series:
Altidore and Giovinco shake the rim
TFC's top scorers, Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, lost their temper during the conference semifinals and may have cost expensive to your club with unnecessary suspensions. There were 42% of the club's regular season scores, they went for the first game of last week against the Crew.
Toronto (22-6-10) and coach Greg Vanney handled the game well in Columbus, however, playing four back and squeaking the draw 0-0. The question on Wednesday would be if Altidore and Giovinco, who had not played in 24 days, would be rested or rusted.
"The result [de[0-0] was good, now it's our turn, and I hope we do the best job for the team," Giovinco told reporters this week.
Nor did he have a good first half, as the unexpected change of the crew to a 3-5-2 (more on that below) created a compact and obstructed rearguard that the stars ahead of TFC had difficulty navigating. When Altidore fell with an ankle injury in the 50th minute and then spent time receiving treatment on the Toronto sideline, it seemed an unhappy ending was more likely.
Then the magic happened. Alex Bono's 60-minute long goal kick bounced against Giovinco, who brilliantly protected the ball from defender Jonathan Mensah, much bigger. A quick heel pbad found Altidore, who slipped the ball to playmaker Víctor Vázquez and then took off for the goal. Altidore received the return pbad from Vázquez and threw a delicate and accurate shot over Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Altidore left the game eight minutes later, but after a long wait, he and Giovinco had done the job.
"I could not" Leave the game, "Altidore told Fox later," I felt I had more to give, that there was an opportunity to come. "Fortunately, the opportunity came while it was still on."
TFC fight to the threshold of history
Toronto's regular season was beautiful, powerful and glorious. The playoffs have been anything but that. The first series against the New York Red Bulls was aggressive, ugly and controversial. This set of two games against Columbus (17-14-8) was tight, tactical and tense. Many thought the Reds were going waltzing to the MLS Cup final. Instead, it was a glove, during which one of the most prolific attacks in the history of the league scored only three goals in four games.
No one in Seattle was concerned about aesthetics when the Sounders failed to get a shot on goal and then won the MLS Cup last year on penalties. And the reds do not care now.
"If you want to be a good team, if you want to be a team that competes for trophies, to win trophies, you have to be able to win in different types of days." TFC captain Michael Bradley told reporters week.
Columbus made it difficult. The 3-5-2 of coach Gregg Berhalter puts TFC into numerical disadvantages that he is not used to facing. Giovinco and Altidore faced extra coverage at the heart of the Crew defense. TFC wingers Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow had a competition for wide spaces, and Bradley had to deal with Justin Meram and Federico Higuain in the middle. The Reds did not get much rhythm.
The breaks were not good either, since Vázquez saw his penalty in the 26th minute saved by Steffen (who has been used to being invincible from 12 yards). But Toronto did not play frustrated as it did against New York, nor did it seem to slow down because of the gloomy memories of last season's loss to the Sounders. Vanney tried to regain control of the tactical narrative by switching to a 4-4-2 after halftime, at least it seemed to restore the game, and the Reds persevered.
"Tonight was a brave performance," Vanney told Fox. "Things were not as clear as we wanted them to be in the first half, and adjustments were made at halftime, I thought we were on the right side of things, then Jozy gets hurt, requires another adjustment, the guys just kept working They kept fighting through him. "
Now, they are 90 minutes away from something that has never been done. If TFC beats Seattle or the Houston Dynamo in the final, it will become the first team to win a MLS Cup, Supporters' Cup and domestic cup (United States Open / Canadian Championship) triplet.
"A great thing is to learn how to polish the games," Altidore said when asked if the TFC this season is better than the 2016 edition. "A game like this, maybe last year, we probably will not win "
Agony and uncertainty for Columbus
Columbus did almost everything well, except making the final play that mattered most to him. Like many games, this was reduced to accuracy in the penalty area, and the Toronto stars had the final touch that the Crews could not muster.
Considering the controversy and distraction caused by owner Anthony Precourt's effort to move the team to Austin, Texas, the fact that Berhalter's team was one step away from hosting the final is remarkable. It is a race that will be remembered. But ending up so close to glory, especially with the uncertainty and potential pain on the horizon, is unbearable.
The Crew was well prepared, and they managed to play in 3-5-2 as if they were the ones who used it all season (it's the TFC signing lineup). Columbus only needed the only away goal, even after Altidore scored, and they were so close to getting it.
Meram had the final on his foot in the first half thanks to a well-orchestrated Higuain counterattack, but Bradley's touch and Bradley's remarkable recovery ended that possibility. Steffen did Vazquez's rescue a few minutes later, maybe this was a destination team after all, but that mockery was never worth it.
In the frantic final moments, Columbus created two more opportunities. But Meram fired high from 12 yards, and an open Ola Kamara missed the touch of a Meram cross that had been redirected at the near post.
Columbus beat Toronto, but he put just one of his 11 attempts on goal. The precision was simply not there.
Usually, a fifth seed is celebrated to get that far. And while there should be no criticism in Columbus (of players and coaches, at least), getting so close feels like a brutal blow to a team and a fan base that could be facing even more pain next year.