TORONTO - Coming into a pressure-packed Canadian Cup match at BMO Field Wednesday night, head coach Aron Winter said Toronto FC had a “surprise” in store for the Montreal Impact.
That surprise — and it was — turned out to be a win, the club's first since the beginning of March.
“For the most part, we played well,” Winter said. “It was not easy because most of the game we were playing with a man less.”
After a 0-0 draw in the Canadian Championship opener at the Big O, the Reds needed a win to advance to the finals.
The pressure, it seems, paid off as TFC came out strong with an early goal from Reggie Lambe just minutes after the start.
With players scrambling in front of goal, the ball made its way to the left side of the area where the Bermudian tucked a deflected finish past a helpless Donovan Ricketts.
But the high pressure turned against the home side 10 minutes later when referee David Gantar issued embattled TFC defender Richard Eckersley a straight red card in the 16th minute for a stamp on the Impact’s Sinisa Ubiparipovic.
“I couldn’t see it ... I don’t know," said Winter, when asked if he thought Gantar’s decision to send off the Englishman was harsh. “For me, it went quick.”
Replays showed Eckersley leading with the bottom of his cleats into Ubiparipovic’s upper ankle along the touch line.
Shockingly, coming off a discouraging 2-0 loss to D.C. United on the weekend, the Reds continued to control things throughout the first half despite playing down a man.
A half-full BMO field rose to its feet just before the break after a goal by Ryan Johnson in the 38th minute made it 2-0. The Jamaican collected a loose ball off a restart and tucked away an easy left-footed finish from inside the goal box to put the home side comfortably in front.
Johnson said part of the reason for the team’s improved play were the meetings they had with the club’s staff following the weekend loss.
“We had a number of meetings after,” Johnson said. “They asked us a lot of questions that were bothering us. It was a nice open dialogue. I think that was something we missed in a lot of the games, the confidence in ourselves.”
Needing to counter with two goals to advance to the Cup final next week, Montreal emerged from the locker room on the attack, keeping much of the play in TFC’s end.
The score remained 2-0 thanks to multiple stops by goalkeeper Milos Kocic, including a point-blank from Ubiparipovic in the 53rd minute.
Second-half substitute Justin Mapp drilled a half-volley off the crossbar in the 79th minute and the Impact came close on a number of second-half restarts late in the match.
Defence also proved crucial for the Reds, particularly 19-year-old Brampton native Doneil Henry, who along with the rest of Toronto’s back four had a solid performance in front of Kocic.
“The players knew even at halftime that they let themselves down,” Montreal head coach Jesse Marsch said of his side’s sluggish performance. “We should be thankful for Donovan (Ricketts) because it could’ve gotten really out of hand. We don’t have a lot of time to rest, we’ve got a big game coming up this weekend and we’ve got to keep pushing forward."
After making his debut on the weekend, Jeremy Hall had a solid showing in place of the ejected Eckersley. The former FC Dallas utility man would have put the match out of reach after the 80th minute if it weren’t for two of Ricketts best saves on the night.
After stretching to deny Hall’s effort from distance in the 81st minute, the towering Jamaican was off his line to stop a point-blank effort from Hall in the 86th.
“The thing that has to come out of this is we have to understand that no team is good enough to just waltz on the field and think that they’ve arrived,” Marsch said. “And certainly, as an expansion team, that's not what we want to be about.”
The Impact had one last effort to cut the lead in half in stoppage time, but Felipe's skipping effort failed to test Kocic, who was in position to cover the shot.
With the 2-0 victory, the Reds advance to the final where they'll meet the Vancouver Whitecaps.
As for the rest of what remains following a disastrous start to the season, Winter is confident that the Reds will be able to build upon last night's win.
“I think that this should be the turnaround,” the Dutchman said.
Toronto hasn’t lost a Voyageurs Cup match since June 2, 2009.