TORONTO – The first “olés” at BMO Field came in the opening minute. The frenzied cheering finally found a peak after 90.
By final whistle, Toronto had escaped with a 2-0 victory over New York City FC in the opening leg of the teams' Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
“Far and away, it was the greatest night in the stadium in terms of energy,” said Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney.
As of last Tuesday, TFC had never hosted a playoff match in its 11-year MLS history. Sunday marked the club’s second such fixture in less than a week and it nearly sold out on three short days of notice and in biting cold. What a difference a week makes.
“These fans have been great all season,” said Toronto defender Drew Moor, “But these last two games have been unbelievable.”
A reported 28,220 attendees made themselves heard from the start. In the fifth minute, the near-capacity crowd vehemently voiced its disapproval with referee Silviu Petrescu’s refusal to whistle for a foul after Sebastian Giovinco appeared to have been shoved to the ground. They jumped to their feet five minutes later when a Jozy Altidore backheel sent Giovinco running behind New York’s backline with only 'keeper Eirik Johansen to beat. Hundreds of heads dropped into gloved hands as Giovinco shot straight at the goalkeeper.
“The atmosphere in the stadium was electric,” said New York City head coach Patrick Vieira. “That had an impact on some of the referee’s decisions, especially when we were in a difficult place.”
The crowd’s vehemence escalated shortly after the 20th minute, when Villa appeared to kick Toronto’s Armando Cooper in the leg. No foul was called. Three minutes later, when Cooper received a yellow card for a different foul on Villa, the crowd again went apoplectic.
Vanney disputed Vieira’s theory that the home fans had cowed the officials, claiming of Villa's clash with Cooper: “On any other day, in any other league, that player receives a suspension.”
For all the sound and fury of the opening exchanges, the game was knotted at halftime. Toronto had actually been out-shot and out-possessed.
In the second half, however, Toronto came out with greater intensity and never let off. In the 84th minute, Giovinco crossed for Cooper, who couldn’t control the ball under his feet. It rolled to Altidore, who smashed in the opener.
“I thought the crowd was in it all day,” Vanney said. And yet after Toronto broke the deadlock “they went up a notch.”
The coach said the crowd was energetic because of his team's high tempo and relentless effort.
That was rewarded in the second minute of injury time. Tosaint Ricketts started a Toronto attack by intercepting a New York City pass on the sideline – and finished it by knocking in a rebound while practically flat on his back.
Less than a week into its life as a MLS Cup playoff-hosting city, Toronto players were at once insistent that their work was incomplete, yet openly discussing how something special is coming together at BMO Field.
“This is what we have talked about being about from the first day of preseason,” said Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley. He had lived through some of the club's false dawns, most notably the “It’s a bloody big deal” campaign that marked Jermain Defoe’s arrival in 2014. This was different.
“When those lights come on, you have to have guys who understand what that’s about,” Bradley said. Toronto FC now has an experienced core for moments like these. “We’re happy that we could reward everyone who came out again and send them home proud.”
After the final whistle, the players ran over to south stand to greet the club’s U-Sector supporters.
“They called me over to bang the drum,” Altidore said. Bang it he did, leading the entire stadium in a rendition of the synchronized clap Iceland made famous at Euro 2016 – but which TFC supporters have executed in some form or another since 2008. “This is all for them,” Altidore said.
Toronto’s trajectory as a soccer city cannot be altered in a week alone. It takes longer to erase a decade of futility; the team’s players stressed that even with a two-goal lead, there remains work to be done in Sunday's 2nd leg at Yankee Stadium (6:30 pm ET on FS1, FOX Deportes in USA; TSN in Canada). Nevertheless, the signs of progress were hard to ignore.
“These are amazing games,” Bradley said, reflecting on what he had looked forward to when he transferred to Toronto from Italian Serie A side AS Roma. “These are real games.”