TORONTO — Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney said his side delivered “a very gutsy performance” in defeating the Columbus Crew 1-0 in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals, giving TFC a 1-0 aggregate victory and a spot in the MLS Cup final for the second year running.
Vanney’s description was typified by striker Jozy Altidore. Altidore sustained an ankle injury early in the second half, and looked like he was about to come out of the match. But he gamely continued to score the game’s only goal in the 60th minute, taking a pass from Victor Vasquez and firing past Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“When [Altidore] went back in after he taped it up, I said, ‘Go hard for as long as you can feel like you can go, and let me know where you’re at. That’s the only way to really test it is to try to really push it for however long you can, and if you can’t go than just tell me,'” said Vanney.
“He didn’t tell me, so I figured he was going to gut it out for as long as he felt like he could.”
Vanney noticed that getting a sniff of goal seemed to spark a recovery in Altidore.
“He went from kind of limping to a perfect sprint and finished it beautifully,” said Vanney. “It was a beautiful goal.”
Altidore was by no means the only hero on the night. The Toronto defense was solid for most of the match, but was stretched at times, none more so than in the 21st when Columbus midfielder Justin Meram appeared to have a clear sight of goal, only for a sloppy touch to allow Michael Bradley to hustle back and break up the play.
“It was an enormous play, and I thought there were a lot of plays like over the course of the game where guys just saw something happening and were able to read it,” said Vanney.
“Our group has been very good at that all year. Sometimes we like to play a little bit on an edge attacking-wise, yet were able to recover and deal with things in a special way.”
Vanney added that is oftentimes the difference between winning matches in the postseason, and going home early.
“We gutted it out, gritted out, and a lot of times that’s what playoff games are about,” he said. “That’s why I say to win the league is very different to winning the championship. It’s not the same.
“Our guys have been able to show that they can do both so far and we’ve got one more game that for sure is the one we’re after.”
Given that Toronto is hosting the MLS Cup final for the second year in a row, Vanney asked what is different about this year’s team. Vanney said that the current edition is able to win games in a wider variety of ways.
“We’ve won games this year where we dominate, we have a lot of possession, we have to break teams down because they sit with a lot of numbers behind the ball. We’ve beat teams that want to come try to press us,” he said.
“We’ve beat teams when it’s a tight game through set pieces. We’ve beat teams where we need to sit back and play on the counter. I think our ability on the night to recognize what is necessary and how we need to go about our business in order to get a result is fantastic.
“We’ve won a lot of games this year, and this group, they know how to go out and win games. And we know how to adapt to a situation and we can have multiple variations of whatever it is we need to do to get a result, and this group is fantastic in that way.”
The big question now is whether Altidore will be able to heal up in time for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9. Vanney sounded optimistic.
“We’ll obviously continue to treat it, but I think he’ll be able to turn it around,” he said. “I think he feels that it’s not bad enough that for the next nine days or so we can’t move him in the right direction and have him available.”
For Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter, his side played well on the night, and his decision to switch to a three-man back line paid off for much of the night. But the match came down to a few key incidents. One went in the Crew’s favor, that being goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s save from Vasquez’s 26th minute penalty. But others — especially those in front of Toronto’s goal — didn’t.
“I think we had good moments,” he said. “We were executing what we set out to do. Unfortunately I think some of the counterattacks that were rushed in the first half.
“I think we didn’t take our chances the best in the first half, we had a couple of good opportunities that we didn’t take. Overall, we weren’t put under that much pressure, and we weren’t troubled that much. I was happy with that.
“I think at the end of the day, there was a couple of chances for them and a couple of chances for us, and they were able to put one in and we weren’t.”
Berhalter was also pleased with the way his team bottled up Giovinco, Vasquez, and Altidore. But such is the quality of that trio that they can take advantage of the smallest of mistakes.
“I think we did a good job on those three, I really do, particularly Giovinco,” he said. “I think we did an excellent job on him keeping him quiet.
“Again, the one little slip-up they took advantage of, and give them credit for that. That’s what the game is about, it’s about the small moments, and we knew an Eastern Conference final was going to come down to something like that, and unfortunately they were on the right end of it, and we were on the wrong end of it.”
Berhalter also hailed his side for pushing through the off-field distraction that has been ownership’s decision to explore a move to Austin, Texas. The focus from the Crew players and coaches was no doubt impressive, and was aided by the run the team went on in the latter part of the season.
“We were focused on what was happening on the field rather than what was happening off the field. That was our priority. The guys had come together the last third of the season, and performed really well,” Berhalter said.
“I think we were in a position, due to how we were playing, to be able to handle something like that even though it was a surprise to a lot of people, even though it was a huge reaction from the public. Because we were playing well, we were able to weather that.”
Ultimately the Crew can look back on a solid season, one that saw them improve over the course of the year. But Berhalter feels there is more room to grow.
“We’re not satisfied,” he said. “If you go in that locker room there’s a lot of guys with heads down because we believed we could win, we believed we could be in the final right now and we’re not. That hurts.”
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.