As this year's Major League Soccer playoffs progressed, the theme for Toronto FC supporters was how their team finally turned a corner on losing in its 10th season.
On Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, TFC completed that transformation with a stunning, merciless quick strike and then domination of New York City FC with a 5-0 win to ensure a trip to the Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Impact. The Reds silenced a crowd of 28,355, save for a small but boisterous band of their own fans, by taking the game away from New York right at the beginning and taking the two-leg Eastern Conference semi-final by a humiliating 7-0 score on the aggregate.
TFC striker Sebastian Giovinco, still smarting from not being included as one of the three finalists as MLS most-valuable player after winning the award last season, sent a strong message to the voters with three goals. Fellow striker Jozy Altidore scored a goal and Jonathan Osorio finished the scoring in the second half.
"We're just continuing to develop a culture and mentality of winning," TFC head coach Greg Vanney said. "I would say that was lacking in previous years. Winning is as much a habit as losing can be.
"The group is a tight-knit group and they work hard for each other. When you start getting results that match up to the work you put in, it starts building some momentum. [Sunday night] and this series as a whole were another one of those momentum moments for us."
Now TFC moves on to another first – the first time two Canadian teams will meet in an MLS conference final. On Nov. 22, after one of those breaks common to soccer, TFC will be in Montreal for the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. The importance of the game means it will be played at 55,000-seat Olympic Stadium rather than the Impact's usual home, Stade Saputo. The second leg is Nov. 30 at BMO Field in Toronto.
Motivation should not be a problem for either side. The Impact embarrassed TFC a year ago in Montreal by a 3-0 decision in the knockout round, the first playoff appearance by the Reds.
"I think it sets up in an amazing way for Soccer Canada, for everybody in those two cities," said TFC midfielder Michael Bradley, who once again was a central figure in the win over New York. "We're enjoying this for the moment but already, in the back of our minds, it's going to be two unbelievable games.
"The rivalry, the dislike between the two cities, for me you couldn't write it up any better."
Despite the fact New York was playing against a 2-0 Toronto lead on the aggregate in the final leg, NYCFC had not lost in eight games at Yankee Stadium. There were concerns New York might be able to attack quickly and take their usual advantage in playing on their small pitch.
New York striker David Villa, who escaped a suspension for the game for kicking at TFC striker Sebastian Giovinco, was supposed to be an even bigger threat on the small pitch. He scored 23 goals in the regular season, second-highest in MLS. But he was never given a chance to get loose.
"We did a good job in our initial pressure," Vanney said. "Every one of their players, when they picked up the ball, they had very little time. We were able to close them, to get pressure to the ball.
"When Villa has space to do his magic he can hurt you. We did a good job putting pressure on the ball right at the start of their attacks so whenever he got the ball, a lot of times he got the ball in not very beneficial moments, not very beneficial spaces. When he did, we always had guys around him to get pressure to him."
The game and the series effectively ended before the first half even reached the halfway mark. Giovinco was tripped in the box by New York defender Frederic Brillant. He scored on the penalty kick in the 20th minute to put TFC ahead 2-0 in the game and 4-0 on aggregate, which ended any realistic hope for the New Yorkers. Giovinco scored the first goal 14 minutes earlier on a nice spin-around move.
When Giovinco, who finished the regular season with 17 goals and 15 assists, was asked by a reporter if the MVP snub was a motivating factor he started smiling even before his interpreter translated the question to Italian. The smile became more of a smirk and when the interpreter relayed his answer it became clear why: "This is not a question that must be asked to me. My job is scoring goals … that's what I want for the team and … the MLS Cup, which is way more important."
Vanney, who took pains to brush off that question last week as well as ones about all of the TFC players being snubbed in the individual awards including himself for the coach-of-the-year trophy, was a little more forthright on Giovinco's behalf.
"A lot, yeah," the coach said when asked if the snub provided any incentive for Giovinco. "I think last year he took a lot of pride in the fact he was the MVP. He was every bit the same player through the course of the season and managed to have a little bit of an injury down the stretch.
"I think [Sunday] was an opportunity for him and the group to make a statement. Sometimes this group feels they get overlooked for various reasons. There's no better place to make your statement than in the playoffs by making a run. There's no doubt it plays a part in [Giovinco's] mindset but he wants to win [a championship], bottom-line."
With Giovinco and Altidore keeping the pressure on up front, and Bradley and the defenders repelling almost every one of the New Yorkers' few offensive attempts, the crowd faded into near silence. All that could be heard were the dozens of red-clad TFC supporters chanting and singing in one end-zone section.