After rolling through the regular season, Toronto FC has had to fight tooth and nail to negotiate the MLS playoffs.
Pretty soccer has gone out the window. The league leaders have had to batten down the defensive hatches and find any way to get past the opposition.
On Wednesday night, it took a 60th-minute goal by a limping Jozy Altidore to turn the tide as Toronto FC returned to the MLS Cup final with a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final.
Toronto will host either the Seattle Sounders or Houston Dynamo in the Dec. 9 MLS Cup final. The Sounders, who took the title from Toronto in a penalty shootout last year, lead the Western Conference final 2-0 going into Game 2 Thursday in Seattle.
After a scoreless tie in Ohio, fifth-seeded Columbus needed a win or draw with goals to advance. Toronto had to win.
Altidore battles through injury
Altidore could hardly walk after a collision with Columbus defender Harrison Afful early in the second half. He got treatment on the field and then had his ankle taped off it before returning to play.
Coach Greg Vanney said he told Altidore to keep going for as long as he could — and to let him know whether he had to come off.
"He didn't tell me so I figured he was going to gut it out for as long as he felt like he could," said Vanney.
"The moment he scored he was kind of like Keyser Soze," added Vanney, referencing the mysterious and occasionally limping antagonist in "The Usual Suspects." "He went from kind of limping to a perfect sprint and finished it beautifully. It was a beautiful goal."
It came with more than a little pain.
"I couldn't really move, I was hobbling around," said Altidore. "It's tough too in these conditions too when you get a knock like that, it's so cold, it's a little bit worse. I wanted to give a little bit of time for whoever was up next, and if a chance came down to it, I wanted it to fall to me. And it did."
Altidore was substituted eight minutes after scoring.
"That's heart," said goalkeeper Alex Bono. "That's all that is. That's heart."
The goal started with a Bono goal kick that found Sebastian Giovinco deep in Columbus territory. The diminutive Italian held off several defenders and backheeled the ball to Altidore who stabbed it to Victor Vazquez. The Spanish midfielder paused and then dinked a pass to Altidore who rolled a right-footed shot past Zack Steffen.
Altidore kept running to the corner flag where he was swallowed up in a ball of joyous teammates.
#TFC reach MLS Cup final for 2nd straight year https://t.co/EWUxiGC7um— @cbcsports
(via @Devin_Heroux) pic.twitter.com/U9LPO75XtA
"When you're standing in the tunnel on nights like this and you look behind you, when you see Jozy it's a damn good feeling," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. "Because you know what he's going to be about. You know that he's going to give you everything he had.
"And on a night when it didn't necessarily come easily or simply, in a moment where nobody would have thought twice if he'd gone off, he found a way to keep going and make a big play for us. I'm so proud of him, so happy for him.
"We're going to need one or two of those more next week."
Game of inches
Playing before a sellout crowd of 30,392 on a crisp night at BMO Field, Toronto survived a few nervy moments at the end.
Justin Meram shot high in the 80th minute in one of Columbus' best chances.
Columbus striker Ola Kamara nearly tied it up in the 87th minute but couldn't get a boot to the ball on a raking cross. Bono then beat Kamara to a cross in stoppage time.
Steffen played his part in the first half Wednesday, stopping a Vazquez penalty in the 26th minute. It was the fourth penalty save this season for the 22-year-old 'keeper — and his second against Toronto.
"We were inches away from scoring the tying goal, we gave up one chance, they score," lamented Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter. "Zack makes a huge play on the penalty. It's a game of inches. We play all year for inches. Ball doesn't go under Ola's foot, we score. And we're singing a different tune now."
The last teams to make it to back-to-back championships games were the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. They met in the 2011 and '12 championship games with the Galaxy winning both times....Read more