Pozuelo scores cheeky 90th-minute penalty to lift TFC into East final
Midfielder strikes twice as Toronto defeats top-seeded NYCFC at Citi Field
Toronto FC moved within one win of returning to the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years with a dramatic 2-1 victory over New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday.
Alejandro Pozuelo, with his second goal of the night, converted a 90th-minute penalty to give Toronto the win. Fullback Ronald Matarrita took Richie Laryea down in the 88th minute as the substitute slashed his way into the penalty box and Pozuelo nonchalantly slotted the spot kick down the middle.
Fourth-seeded Toronto will play either No. 2 Atlanta or No. 3 Philadelphia, who meet Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in the conference final Oct. 30.
"Listen, at the end of [Thursday] night there'll be four teams left. Four teams that get to still train and play real games," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. "And we're one of them. And that part's exciting."
For Bradley, Wednesday's win was another sign of Toronto's steely mentality.
"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 about. And it showed."
WATCH | Pozuelo's penalty sends TFC to East final:
Toronto coach Greg Vanney, who again looked like he had just stepped off a Milan runway in a suit and saucy scarf, also likes what he sees.
"The mentality is really strong on this team. The work rate is really strong there, the quality is there. They believe in themselves. And anything's possible when all those things fit together," he said.
While Toronto dominated a scoreless first half and went ahead early in the second, it had to survive a furious fightback from the second-best team in the league during the regular season.
NYCFC will rue the mistakes that led to both Toronto goals. TFC will point to a battle-hardened spirit that helped the team to an extra-time 5-1 win over D.C. United in its playoff opener last Saturday.
On a roll, Toronto extended its undefeated streak to 12 games (6-0-6) in league play. It had not lost since Aug. 3, a 2-0 setback at the New York Red Bulls.
Despite that, everything had seemed in NYCFC's favour going into the game.
Toronto takes down top seed
NYCFC was well-rested having secured a first-round bye by virtue of topping the Eastern Conference. The New Yorkers, who finished 14 points ahead of Toronto in the regular season, last played Oct. 6 in the regular-season finale.
NYCFC had suffered just one defeat in its previous 11 games (8-1-2). And it had gone undefeated in its previous eight home games in league play.
Toronto, in contrast, was playing on three days' rest with star striker Jozy Altidore still nursing a quad strain. Centre back Omar Gonzalez, who like Altidore missed the D.C. game, was recovered enough from his hamstring issue to make the bench Wednesday but did not see the field.
Despite Altidore's absence, Toronto was more creative in front of goal but failed to reap the rewards in the first half. That changed in the 47th minute when NYCFC got an attempted clearance deep in its own half horribly wrong.
Taking advantage, taking the lead.<a href="https://twitter.com/Pozuelo_10?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Pozuelo_10</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TFCLive?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TFCLive</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLSCupPlayoffs?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MLSCupPlayoffs</a> <a href="https://t.co/WfxZKtxgiq">pic.twitter.com/WfxZKtxgiq</a>—@TorontoFC
Toronto's Brazilian fullback Auro hoofed the ball into the NYCFC end after a throw-in and the home side tried to clear the ball with three headers that went from bad to worse to complete disaster.
Defender Maxime Chanot, a French-born Luxembourg international, committed the final gaffe with an attempted back-header to goalkeeper Sean Johnson that went straight to Pozuelo, who accepted the gift and then beat Johnson with a left-footed shot.
The game was moved some 12 kilometres from Yankee Stadium to Citi Field, home of the Mets, because of the Yankees' playoff run. The Yankees were eliminated by Houston on Saturday but the decision to shift the MLS contest had already been made.