Reds a win away from MLS Cup with incredible defeat of Montreal Impact

By Kurt Larson, Toronto Sun

Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact during the MLS Conference Finals, Game 2 at BMO field in Toronto on Wednesday November 30, 2016. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact during the MLS Conference Finals, Game 2 at BMO field in Toronto on Wednesday November 30, 2016. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

At the end of this season, next season or at least before his time is up here, Michael Bradley wanted to look back at every doubter, naysayer and pundit who didn’t believe in his leadership, or who mocked the size of his paycheque and ability.

It was through this quote — exclusively to the Toronto Sun earlier this year — amid an early-season run full of strife and mixed results and uncertainty surrounding a club that was desperate to find success following a decade of futility.

“I can take the heat when things don’t go well … It doesn’t bother me one bit,” Bradley told me.

He says he doesn’t read outside noise. He claims it doesn’t bother him.

But he hears it. He knows what people are saying, and what’s being reported.

“All it does is push me and make me that much more determined to have my day when I can look back at everybody and say,” bradley paused with a smile. “Told you so.”

Perhaps he knew what was brewing inside Toronto FC’s dressing room. Perhaps he knew the Reds would, for one night, rule this city.

Perhaps he was just hopeful — and in a good mood. Did he even believe things would be this good? And so soon?

Did he actually think the Reds would put in one of the best nights in Toronto soccer history?

“All week we spoke about what tonight could be,” Bradley said. “Nobody knew for sure, but we all had an idea it could be a special night in turns of atmosphere and emotion — in some ways 10 years of emotion.”

Oh, was it ever emotional.

A heart-stopping, out-of-this-world, unbelievable 5-2 (7-5 aggregate) extra-time second-leg win over visiting Montreal in Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference final has Toronto FC a win away from lifting the MLS Cup (Dec. 10) in front of home supporters when they meet Seattle.

And Michael Bradley a win away from proving prophetic when we spoke that day — especially after the Reds put in one of the most gutsy performances in Major League Soccer history.

“One of our messages was: There was no way we were going to get out-competed,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said. “We were going to run through everything to turn those margins in our favour.

None of the 36,00 in attendance could have expected the roller-coaster ride that awaited.

“There were moments when we needed (all 36,000 fans),” Bradley said. “We needed their emotion to lift us. Tonight was a perfect example. There were so many twists and turns.”

They appeared to be on their way out of the competition when Dominic Oduro put the Impact up 4-2 on aggregate midway through the first half. Montreal’s Ghanaian striker was played in along the right side of the box before quieting the 36,000 inside BMO Field.

But there was Bradley — encouraging teammates, calming nerves, continuing to play with the same desire that helped rescue the Reds when they went down three goals in last week’s opening leg.

Back-and-forth they went. Ten minutes before the break, TFC’s Armando Cooper converted after a pin-balled corner sat up perfectly for him, cutting Montreal’s aggregate lead to 4-3.

The MVP of these playoffs, Jozy Altidore, then put the Reds up 2-1 (and 4-4 on aggregate due to away goals) when he met a Sebastian Giovinco corner at the near post to head Toronto back into the series lead.

“You get to this point and nobody wants to give an inch,” Bradley added. “The rivalry, the passion, you’re 90 minutes from a final. Every little battle, every loose ball, everything is contested.

There were enough twists and turns in this two-game series to make up for all the hell this franchise has put fans through for more than a decade.

Moments after the break, the Reds again found themselves down in this series when Ignacio Piatti somehow weaved through traffic before a deflected attempt on goal slowly rolled side netting. That made it 2-2 (5-4 Montreal on aggregate).

But as we saw in Montreal last week — heck, as we’ve seen all season — the Reds found a way back in it.

It will go down as one of the most majestic moments in Toronto FC history.

In need of a goal to force extra time, a recycled corner rolled to Justin Morrow, who lofted a perfectly weighted ball into the area. There was Nick Hagglund, the grinder, the workhorse. Hagglund skied above everyone — hanging majestically — before heading home from the penalty spot.

“I think he’s maybe the best header of the ball I’ve ever been around,” Vanney said of his defender. “His timing is good. His ability to jump is ridiculous. Through the energy and adrenaline, he was higher than I’ve seen him before.”

Just like that, the Reds found themselves back in front in this game for the ages — with 30 minutes extra time awaiting. It was the half-hour this franchise has been talking about all season. It was a moment in which the Reds simply wanted it more.

Only they’d have to do it without Giovinco, the player so many pundits around this league said was the only reason Toronto FC was in this position. Giovinco limped off minutes into extra time with a calf cramp.

On came aging midfielder Benoit Cheyrou to steady to ship, to provide leadership. What more could head coach Greg Vanney have expected from him?

How about the biggest goal in Toronto FC history?

No more than a minute after check in, Cheyrou muscled his way into the box to get on the end of a cross from Steven Beitashour. He put his header near post and past a stranded Evan Bush to put the Reds up 4-2 (6-5 on aggregate).

A minute after that, the game was done. Back came Jozy Altidore, an absolute beast all night, who beat his man along the right side of the box before whipping in a cross that Tosaint Ricketts slid past Bush.

This after the Reds found themselves out of these playoffs so many times in this series. This after so much strife since 2007. This after Bradley had been slaughtered time and again since coming here in 2014.

Now he finds himself on the cusp of Toronto greatness — something he so badly wanted to “tell” everyone at the start of this project.

Now he can.

PITCH-ED BATTLE

Decades from now, the first all-Canadian Eastern Conference final won’t be remembered for the playing details. Or the 98,000-plus fans that attended games at Montreal’s Olympic stadium and Toronto FC’s BMO Field.

No, it will be remembered for the embarrassing gaffe that marred the field prior to the opening leg of this intense rivalry. Penalty areas at both ends of the Big O’s pitch were found to be approximately four yards too narrow, causing a 40-minute delay last Tuesday.

It also gave BMO Field’s groundsmen a chance to take a few shots prior to Wednesday night’s decisive fixture.

“44 yards ... 132 feet…” BMO Grounds Crew tweeted, along with a photo of measuring tape. “Measure twice, paint once.”

With a TV audience of more than a million ready to take in the match, Impact owner Joey Saputo was forced to issue an apology. “We’re somewhat embarrassed,” Saputo told ESPN as crews hurried to widen the boxes. “Obviously, it’s the first time it has happened to us. We’ve been in situations like this before, where we have 61,000 fans.

“We had the Champions League final here. It’s a responsibility of the referees to check it out. Unfortunately, the referees got here a little late — whether it was traffic or traffic around the stadium. We have to take the responsibility for it. It’s our fault. It’s unfortunate it has happened.”

All eyes were on BMO’s grounds crew ahead of Wednesday night’s return leg. The horticulturalists had three days to remove Grey Cup lines and manicure Toronto FC’s playing surface.

In the end, BMO’s crew clearly won the battle of the groundsmen.

ELBOWED ASIDE

Impact bench boss Mauro Biello didn’t say it, but based on his response he likely thinks Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore should have been ejected early in Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference final.

In the 13th minute, Altidore went in strong for an aerial 50-50 challenge with the much-smaller Hernan Bernardello, who was worse for wear after the collision.

Bernardello appeared to pass out briefly as he fell to the pitch. He needed to be helped off the pitch.

“I thought the elbow was high,” Biello said. “They told me it was a clear elbow.

“In the end, the referee made a choice. He let a lot of things go tonight. That’s the way things go.”

Excuse Biello, who likely didn’t have the chance to see a replay.

While Altidore went up strong for the challenge, his elbows were down.

While his shoulder appeared to catch Bernardello’s head, the U.S. international had every right to go up strong for the challenge.

Referee Jair Marrufo made the right call to keep his cards in his pocket.