FLUSHING, N.Y. — New York City FC finished the regular season on top, but is going home after just one playoff game.
A last-minute penalty sent top-seeded NYCFC packing Wednesday with a 2-1 loss to No. 4 Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Alejandro Pozuelo scored both of Toronto’s goals in the second half. Toronto will now advance to the conference final to face the winner of a Thursday semifinal between Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union.
“The mentality is really strong with this team, the work rate is really strong, the quality is there, they believe in themselves,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney said. “Anything is possible when all those things are put together.”
The decisive goal came after Ronald Matarrita tripped Toronto’s Richie Laryea inside the penalty area. Pozuelo put his penalty kick past Sean Johnson in the 90th minute in front of an announced crowd of 19,829 at Citi Field.
NYCFC coach Dome Torrent is under contract for next season, but said after the game he does not know whether he will return. He has to go back to English sister cub Manchester City to meet with ownership and discuss his future.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Torrent said. “Right now we have time, it’s October, we have time to talk about the next year. But don’t worry because if Dome’s not here … the most important thing is the club. They have a good, good team, amazing players and no doubt about if Dome is the head coach or another coach, he can play really well with these kind of players.”
Torrent said he told the players many times leading up to Wednesday’s match, “It’s about the mistakes” in knockout games.
That proved true.
Just three minutes into the second half, Toronto FC capitalized on a gaffe by NYCFC’s defense to score the game’s first goal. Maxime Chanot attempted to head back to Johnson, but only popped the ball slightly behind him. Pozuelo picked the ball off and finished with his left foot from 12 yards out.
“It’s just one of those moments where things don’t work out the way you really planned them,” Johnson said. “That’s the game of football. He’s a terrific defender so it doesn’t define him by any means. I’m sure we’d all have that back that moment back and do it differently next time.”
Taty Castellanos came close to the equalizer in the 57th minute when he turned from 20 yards out and fired just wide of the far post. Two minutes later, Maxi Moralez put a shot on frame, but goalkeeper Quentin Westberg made the save.
The leveler came in the 69th minute, when Moralez crossed to the back post and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi beat Westberg off the bounce.
NYCFC had a first-round playoff bye, and looked every bit a team that hadn’t played in 17 days during the opening 45 minutes. The home team would have trailed at the break if not for the play of Johnson.
Oct 23, 2019; New York, NY, USA; Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley (4) warms up before a game against New York City FC at CitiField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
“Simply we just weren’t good enough today,” Johnson said. “I think you look at the course of the game and we start off for 45 minutes and think get lucky to escape 0-0 at halftime. We didn’t show up with the right energy, the right focus and mistakes happen, but i think is a collective. In big games, in big moments, we have to show up.”
Johnson made four saves in the first half, each a critical intervention. He parried away an attempt by Tsubasa Endoh in the 5th minute and dived to his right to push aside a point-blank shot by Pozuelo 10 minutes later.
In the 37th minute, a clever combination for Toronto FC saw Pozuelo play a penetrating pass to Endoh in the box. The Japanese midfielder set up Jonathan Osorio with a backheel, but Johnson pushed the Canadian international’s shot over the crossbar for one of TFC’s three first-half corner kicks.
The best chance for NYCFC in the first half came on a quick restart by Alex Ring after Moralez was fouled. He played to a streaking Castellanos, but Westberg got a piece of the attempt for an NYCFC corner. NYCFC had one final shot to level in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time, but Westberg pushed aside Castellanos’ close-range header.
“I think the second half we played much better than the first half and we deserved more,” Torrent said. “But sometimes the soccer is unfair with the players and that happened tonight.”