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Toronto FC: A Beautiful, Bonkers Night

When we came to Canada nine years ago, football was the ultimate afterthought. Watching a Premier League game meant a dodgy stream or going to a particular pub. Toronto FC were so bad that those outside the dedicated hardcore just didn’t care. Fast forward a decade and football is everywhere in this city. Every game is on TV and Toronto FC are one of the best supported teams in MLS. There was no better evidence of this than at last night’s Eastern Conference Final.

There was a buzz in the air leading up to game-time.

The MLS Eastern Conference Final was between two Canadian teams for the first time in history, and Toronto FC had never before got this far into the playoffs. There were many milestones. It seemed as if this had passed somewhat under the radar as Canada – though changing – remains very hockey and baseball focused, so it was good to see that there were 36,000 fans in attendance at the beautiful and boisterous BMO Field. While we’re on the topic, BMO (Bank of Montreal) sat diplomatically on the fence for this one, sponsoring as they do, both teams.

Montreal and Toronto have had some eventful games over the past couple of seasons, with Montreal eliminating TFC in the playoff knockout round last year. In the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final this time, Montreal had also been leading 3-0 at one point before TFC mounted a two-goal comeback to end on a favourable 3-2 scoreline with the two vital away goals keeping them in the tie. The stage was set for an epic battle in Toronto in the second leg.

Flares were lit, drums were hit, fireworks launched and the rain poured down on a chilly night. The national anthem was sung in a rousing manner without any nasty nationalistic undertones.The ultras were in full voice. There were chants with foul language aimed at our Montreal rivals.  Everything was ready.

The game started with a lot of nervous, long ball football. It seemed everything was being lumped forward by both sides, while minor collisions and annoying fouls peppered the opening minutes.  However, Montreal soon found the first goal through Dominic Oduro after some slack utterly useless TFC defending and the home side were down 4-2 on aggregate. The Montreal fans, tucked away in the upper corner of the east stand, went berserk.

TFC didn’t give up, however, and pressed forward. Michael Bradley – to his credit – urged his teammates to stay calm despite his own shambolic performance. Two lovely Giovinco corners saw Cooper and Altidore both score before half time to put Toronto up 2-1 and leading on away goals. Each goal was celebrated wildly. More fireworks. Smoke filled the stadium and for a few minutes afterwards the pitch became hard to see. The game was now perfectly set up to go either way.

At half time, the Cosh was in agreement that Michael Bradley was the main culprit for the Montreal counterattacks with his poor distribution and tendency to drop back and gave too much space in the midfield for the opposition to push forward – a theme that would continue throughout the 90 minutes. It was also clear that any crosses into the Montreal box scared the life out of the visitors, who defended them like children.

The see-saw nature of the game continued after half time, with Montreal equalizing to make it 2-2 and, drawing level on away goals, also cancelling out TFC’s advantage in that regard. There was a lot of anxiety in the stands which were truly quietened for the first time. Toronto, a city starved of sporting success for so long was about to get “punked” by their neighbours just up the 401 .

However, a beautiful Nick Hagglund header late in the game from a perfect Morrow cross put Toronto 3-2 up and mirrored the scoreline from the first leg. The stadium went absolutely mental and the match went into extra time, with the stadium announcer gloriously explaining to fans what extra time was and how it worked. Emotions ran high. Anxious hugs were plentiful.

Then, in the first half of extra time, Sebastian Giovinco went down injured and was removed for Benoit Cheyrou, an aging French deep-lying playmaker. A like-for-like substitution this was not. And yet, just a few minutes later, Cheyrou bizarrely popped up on the end of a Beitashour cross to nod home the go-ahead goal. BMO Field exploded for the fourth time in the night, but not the last.

In a wild two-minute spell, Man of the Match Jozy Altidore monstered his way past two Montreal defenders and slid a perfect cross, low across the six-yard-box. Substitute and Toronto native Tosaint Ricketts timed his slide perfectly and connected, knocking in the fifth goal that sealed an incredible victory for TFC. It was their match, it was their time, it was their Eastern Conference.

The city celebrated. Voices, beers, scarves, nerves – all were lost. The Cosh were privileged to be in attendance at what has been immediately labeled the greatest MLS playoff match in history. This is what the game is about.

We look forward to the MLS Cup final on December 10th, also in Toronto at BMO Field. In ten days it won’t be 36,000 fans but 5 million in the Greater Toronto Area cheering the Reds on.

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