NEW YORK — At the home of the New York Mets in Queens, visiting Toronto FC prevailed over NYCFC on Wednesday night.
The Reds played an outstanding away game at Citi Field against the top MLS team in the Eastern Conference this season, coming away with a hard-fought 2-1 victory courtesy of a 90th-minute penalty kick goal by MLS newcomer of the year runnerup Alejandro Pozuelo.
The smart money in this one was on New York City. Not only were they rested and playing at home, Toronto had to go into extra-time to beat D.C. United in their previous playoff game at BMO Field this past Saturday. The Reds are now unbeaten in their last 12 MLS games.
“We’ve played on as many big days in the last few years as any team in this league and we have guys who understand what these nights are all about and it showed,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said.
Pozuelo’s PK game-winning goal came about when Toronto’s Richie Laryea was taken down by NYCFC’s Ronald Matarrita in the penalty area. Pozuelo beat New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson on the ensuing penalty kick with a “Panenka,” (a chip shot) down the middle to give his team the win and a spot in the MLS Eastern Conference final next week.
The previous time TFC and NYCFC met, on Sept. 11 at Yankee Stadium, Pozuelo scored on a PK and Johnson made a save on him on another.
Richie Laryea has been a sensational acquisition for Toronto this year. A Toronto native who played his club soccer with the esteemed Sigma FC program in Mississauga, Laryea also came off the bench against D.C. United last Saturday and scored, posting two huge games in post-season action as a substitute.
Laryea was originally selected by Orlando City in the first round (7th overall) in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, out of the University of Akron. He had his option declined by Orlando City at the end of last season and it looked very much like his playing career was over. After being invited to TFC’s preseason training camp, the team eventually signed him a few weeks into the start of the 2019 season. Head coach Greg Vanney converted him from midfield into a marauding right-back, where the 24-year-old has been a revelation at the position. Last month, Laryea earned his first cap for the Canadian National Team. This month, he went the full 90 minutes in Canada’s historic 2-0 win against the U.S.
“When guys are tired, he’s a disaster to have to deal with and he did what he’s done so many times this year, which is eliminate guys and drive to the end line and get himself in position to cross,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said about Laryea.
The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal and Joshua Kloke just wrote about Laryea and his story. When they cut him, Orlando City’s technical staff told him that they didn’t see him as an MLS-caliber player.
Toronto ’keeper Quentin Westberg made a huge save in extra-time to preserve the win for TFC.
“Throughout the game, these past two (playoff) games, a lot of different guys in different moments have had key roles and that’s the depth of our group,” said Westberg, who joined the Reds early this season. “I know that coming into (Toronto) we heard a lot about 2016 and 2017, and now the new guys want to bring something to the equation. Last year was a little hard on everyone (missing the playoffs) and we needed to re-set and now we’re a different style, a different team.”
Pozuelo also scored in the 47th minute, a result of some very poor play in the defensive end by New York. TFC defender Auro put a ball in towards the NYCFC goal and Citizens’ defender Maxime Chanot tried to head it back to his goalkeeper. Instead, he headed it to Pozuelo in the box and the Spaniard easily put it home.
Pozuelo has essentially played back-to-back pro seasons (Belgian League and then MLS), but he has fought through fatigue to be the leader of the his club in the post-season. Pozuelo created four scoring chances and had four shots on goal, leading Toronto in both categories.
“His ability in the attacking part of the field to make plays is amazing,” Bradley said. “And obviously (Wednesday night) when things are going a million miles an hour (on a small pitch) we need him to be able to slow it down and have the composure to make plays that make a difference.”
After Pozuelo’s first goal, NYCFC turned the flow of the match in their favour and tied it in the 69th minute after a perfect cross from Maximiliano Moralez to Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who was left unattended to the left of Westberg. Tajouri-Shradi had no trouble finding the open net.
“We did that last week, we gave up a goal in the final seconds of the game and those can really kick you in the gut,” Vanney said. “But the guys re-grouped and again we found a way to settle the game down.”
Toronto defender Laurent Ciman summed it up this way:
For the second straight playoff match, Toronto was without forward Jozy Altidore (quad strain) and centre back Omar Gonzalez (strained hamstring) — both huge key starters. Gonzalez was on the bench to start the game. Altidore did not dress.
“Jozy’s getting there. He’s been able to get his high-speed running, all that stuff, up to where we’re comfortable. But he still hasn’t really been able to shoot and unleash shots. Giving us six, seven more days (before the Eastern Conference final) is huge. We’re very optimistic we’ll get him there,” Vanney said. “Omar was available if we needed him (Wednesday) to close out the game. He was ready, if push came to shove.”
NYCFC finished first overall in the Eastern Conference this season and received a first-round bye in the playoffs. Wednesday’s match represented New York’s first competitive match in 18 days while TFC played 120 minutes on Saturday, defeating D.C. United 5-1 in extra time. TFC certainly didn’t look fatigued on Wednesday, dominating the first half.
TFC’s Chris Mavinga, playing without his usual centre back partner Gonzalez, had a very strong game despite NYCFC scoring in the second half.
Toronto FC awaits the winner of the other Eastern Conference semifinal between Philadelphia and Atlanta, being played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday night. Can Toronto FC advance to the MLS Cup Final? As Quintin Westberg said, “we have a lot of heart and we’re out here on a mission.”