TORONTO — After rolling through the regular season, Toronto FC has had to fight tooth and nail to negotiate the MLS playoffs.
Pretty soccer has gone out the window. The league leaders have had to batten down the defensive hatches and find a way — any way — to get past the opposition.
On Wednesday night it took a 60th-minute goal by a limping Jozy Altidore to turn the tide as Toronto FC returned to the MLS Cup final with a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final.
Toronto will host the Seattle Sounders in the Dec. 9 MLS Cup final. The Sounders, who took the title from Toronto in a penalty shootout last year, defeated the Houston Dynamo 3-0 on Thursday to win their two-game Western Conference final aggregate series 5-0.
After a scoreless tie in Game 1 Nov. 21 in Ohio, fifth-seeded Columbus needed a win or draw with goals to advance. Toronto had to win.
Altidore could hardly walk after a collision with Columbus defender Harrison Afful early in the second half. He got treatment on the field and then had his ankle taped off it before returning to play.
Coach Greg Vanney said he told Altidore to keep going for as long as he could — and to let him know whether he had to come off.
"He didn't tell me so I figured he was going to gut it out for as long as he felt like he could," said Vanney.
"The moment he scored he was kind of like Keyser Soze," added Vanney, referencing the mysterious and occasionally limping antagonist in "The Usual Suspects." "He went from kind of limping to a perfect sprint and finished it beautifully. It was a beautiful goal."
It came with more than a little pain.
"I couldn't really move, I was hobbling around," said Altidore. "It's tough too in these conditions too when you get a knock like that, it's so cold, it's a little bit worse. I wanted to give a little bit of time for whoever was up next, and if a chance came down to it, I wanted it to fall to me. And it did."
Altidore was substituted eight minutes after scoring.
"That's heart," said goalkeeper Alex Bono. "That's all that is. That's heart."
The goal started with a Bono goal kick that found Sebastian Giovinco deep in Columbus territory. The diminutive Italian held off several defenders and backheeled the ball to Altidore who stabbed it to Victor Vazquez. The Spanish midfielder paused and then dinked a pass to Altidore who rolled a right-footed shot past Zack Steffen.
Altidore kept running to the corner flag where he was swallowed up in a ball of joyous teammates.
"When you're standing in the tunnel on nights like this and you look behind you, when you see Jozy it's a damn good feeling," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. "Because you know what he's going to be about. You know that he's going to give you everything he had.
"And on a night when it didn't necessarily come easily or simply, in a moment where nobody would have thought twice if he'd gone off, he found a way to keep going and make a big play for us. I'm so proud of him, so happy for him.
"We're going to need one or two of those more next week. "
Playing before a sellout crowd of 30,392 on a crisp night at BMO Field, Toronto survived a few nervy moments at the end.
Justin Meram shot high in the 80th minute in one of Columbus' best chances.
Columbus striker Ola Kamara nearly tied it up in the 87th minute but couldn't get a boot to the ball on a raking cross. Bono then beat Kamara to a cross in stoppage time.
Steffen played his part in the first half Wednesday, stopping a Vazquez penalty in the 26th minute. It was the fourth penalty save this season for the 22-year-old 'keeper — and his second against Toronto.
"We were inches away from scoring the tying goal, we gave up one chance, they score," lamented Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter. "Zack makes a huge play on the penalty. It's a game of inches. We play all year for inches. Ball doesn't go under Ola's foot, we score. And we're singing a different tune now."
Bradley made a huge defensive play in the first half, intervening after a nice buildup by Federico Higuain and Kamara gave Meram a good look on goal in the 21st. But a poor first touch and Bradley's saving tackle rescued Toronto.
How difficult have the playoffs been for Toronto, a team touted as the league's best ever?
Toronto is 2-1-1 in the post-season. Altidore's goal Wednesday was the team's first in 258 minutes. The last score came almost a month ago — on Oct. 30, via a Giovinco free kick in the 72nd minute of a 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena.
Still top-seeded Toronto liked where it stood going into Game 2, needing a win on home soil to advance to the final. And it had all its weapons back with Altidore and Giovinco returning from the suspension that kept them out of the series opener.
After playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation without its top strikers in Columbus, Toronto reverted to its more usual 3-5-2. Jonathan Osorio replaced Marky Delgado in the midfield with Eriq Zavaleta resuming his normal position in the backline.
Fifth-seeded Columbus was without Brazilian midfielder Artur, suspended after picking up a second yellow card last time out. Mohammed Abu replaced him with Lalas Abubakar coming in for Jukka Raitala.
Berhalter switched to three in the back, opting for a 3-4-2-1 instead of the 4-2-3-1 last time out.
Toronto began to stroke the ball around but could not break down the Crew defence until late in the first half when Columbus had to resort to some desperate defending as Toronto pressed in the penalty box.
Delgado came in for Zavaleta to open the second half, with Toronto switching to what looked like a 4-1-3-2 — or 4-4-2 with Bradley shielding the backline at the bottom of a midfield diamond.
The last teams to make it to back-to-back championships games were the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. They met in the 2011 and '12 championship games with the Galaxy winning both times.
Columbus arrived in Toronto having lost just once — 2-0 to New York City FC in the playoffs — since Aug. 5 (an 8-1-5 run). Despite an uncertain future — ownership is talking of move to Austin, Texas, after the 2018 season — Columbus has done its talking on the field.
With files from Lori Ewing
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press