TFC punches ticket to East final with masterful win over NYCFC

THE BRONX, NEW YORK – Masterful.

There are plenty of ways to describe Toronto FC’s 5-0 destruction of New York City FCon Sunday night before 28,355 spectators at Yankee Stadium in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but masterful is the appropriate adjective to use in this case. Such was the fashion in which the Reds beat up and bloodied NYCFC.

Sebastian Giovinco scored a hat trick and had an assist, and Jozy Altidore celebrated his 27th birthday in style with his third goal of this post-season for Toronto. After winning this two-game playoff 7-0 on aggregate, the Reds now advance to the Eastern Conference final where they will take on the Montreal Impact.

How good was Toronto FC on Sunday? Simply put, this was, without question, the most complete and dominant performance in franchise history. That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact. That they did it at this hallowed sports cathedral and against one of the top teams in Major League Soccer only underlines how special of a night this was for the Canadian outfit.

Speaking to reporters in the locker room after the game, general manager Tim Bezbatchenko had words of praise for coach Greg Vanney and captain Michael Bradley for helping to steer Toronto FC through what is the most successful campaign in the team’s 10-year history.

“With this group, with what Greg has done with the coaching staff, with what Michael does with his leadership, they set a new benchmark. They raised the level. It’s really incredible to watch as this team has come together,” Bezbatchenko said.

NYCFC was truly humbled and embarrassed at the feet of a team that must be considered the odds-on favourite to win the MLS Cup on Dec. 10. The Reds are the class of MLS right now, and should anybody doubt that, they need only look at the way they shredded New York, the league’s top attacking side during the regular season.

For the fourth consecutive match, Vanney used the exact same starting lineup. All three Designated Players for New York — David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard started. Pirlo missed the first leg due to injury, while Lampard was a second half substitute.

From a tactical perspective, Vanney got it perfect. Sitting on a 2-0 lead from the first leg, he could have had his team sit back and play a defensive game to see things out. Instead, Toronto ruthlessly and meticulously went in for the kill, and that was how they made beating NYCFC look so easy.

“We wanted to come in and win this game. We didn’t want to come in here and leave it to chance, and maybe skate by, or slip through in the end on an away goal. We wanted to be aggressive, we wanted to impose ourselves on them, we wanted to step up and close them down, and play the game in their end,” Bradley explained.

Vanney said as much as how TFC was brilliant in attack, it was how the team played on the back end that impressed him the most.

“They have some very good players, very good attacking players, and we were able to keep the clean sheet, which I’m very proud of,” Vanney said.

Playing in Vanney’s now-favoured 3-5-2 formation, TFC pressed New York right from the opening kicking off, keeping the home side hemmed inside its half and forcing them to play their way out from the back. When NYCFC did venture forward, it was routinely snuffed out by Toronto’s stalwart defence, quarterbacked by veteran Drew Moor.

New York had no answer for TFC’s speedy counter attack, or its lightning-quick transition play. Up front, Giovinco and Altidore connected with peak efficiency, wingbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour expertly bombed forward in support, and Bradley stoutly anchored the midfield. Every cog of the vast TFC machine clicked and worked perfectly in unison.

It took the Reds only six minutes to open the scoring, with Giovinco taking a pass from Altidore, spinning past New York defender Maxime Chanot and then beating goalkeeper Eirik Johansen with a hard shot at the near-post. Giovinco added a second goal in the 20th minute, converting from the penalty spot after being brought down inside the area.

After both Giovinco goals, the contingent of 300 travelling TFC fans serenaded the Italian with a deafening chant of “MVP,” a not so subtle dig against MLS after it was revealed earlier this week that the Toronto forward wasn’t named a finalist for the league’s top individual award.

The MVP snub motivated Giovinco, according to Vanney.

“His priority is winning [MLS Cup], but last year he took a lot of pride in the fact he was the MVP. … I’m not quite sure how he got overlooked,” Vanney said.

“Tonight, it was an opportunity for him and the group to make a statement. Sometimes this group feels like it gets overlooked for various reasons, and there’s no better place to make your statement in the playoffs.”

Altidore delivered the fatal blow 10 minutes later, collecting a pass from Eriq Zavaleta and blasting a powerful shot from a sharp angle inside the box that blew by Johansen.

Three goals in 30 minutes. Game over. Altidore’s strike not only settled the series, but it sent several New York fans racing for the aisles in disgust.

Toronto didn’t let up, though. Giovinco turned provider shortly after the halftime break, slipping a ball into the box for substitute Will Johnson, who fed fellow Canadian Jonathan Osorio to finish it off.

Giovinco completed his hat trick in injury time, going on a run down the right side before ripping a shot from outside the box that flashed past Johansen and nestled inside the far post.

NOTES: The Impact beat the New York Red Bulls 2-1 on Sunday to win their playoff series. The Impact won the first leg 1-0 at home… The Eastern Conference final games are scheduled for Nov. 22 and 30. Montreal will host the first leg at Olympic Stadium, and Toronto will stage the return match… Regardless of who wins between Toronto and Montreal, a Canadian team will play in the MLS Cup final for the first time in league history…

Article Written by John Molinaro of Sportsnet