Pozuelo’s late penalty lifts Toronto FC past New York City FC in MLS playoffs


Alejandro Pozuelo converted a 90th-minute penalty to give Toronto FC a 2-1 win over New York City FC in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday.

Fullback Ronald Matarrita took Richie Laryea down in the 88th minute as the substitute slashed his way into the penalty box and Pozuelo slotted the spot kick down the middle with nonchalant ease in the 90th minute.

It was Pozuelo’s second goal of the game and his fourth goal against NYCFC this season. He went 2-of-3 from the penalty spot against the New Yorkers. Quentin Westberg made a diving save in stoppage time to preserve the win.

After Pozuelo took advantage of another New York City FC blunder early in the second half for a 1-0 Toronto lead, NYCFC finally came to life and launched attack after attack. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi tied it up in the 69th minute when Toronto was caught ball-watching in its own end.

Despite missing the injured Jozy Altidore, Toronto was more creative in front of goal but failed to take advantage in the first half. That changed in the 47th minute when NYCFC got an attempted clearance deep in its own half horribly wrong.

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 finale 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.

New York, which had the second-best regular-season record in the league, went into high gear after the goal and pulled even in the 69th minute.

After a NYCFC throw-in in the Toronto end, Maximiliano Moralez sent a cross to the far post and spotted Tajouri-Shradi making a late run. Jonathan Osorio tried to get to the unmarked Tajouri-Shradi but was too late as the Swiss-born Libyan international beat Westberg.

Toronto will play either No. 2 Atlanta or No. 3 Philadelphia, who meet Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in the conference final Oct. 20.

Fourth-seeded Toronto was playing on just three days rest after a 5-1 extra-time win Saturday over visiting D.C. United in a first-round, playoff matchup.

Altidore, a game-day decision with a quad strain, did not make the matchday 18 for the second match in a row. Centre back Omar Gonzalez, who sat out the D.C. contest with a hamstring issue, started on the bench.

NYCFC, in contrast, 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.

Brazilian forward Heber, who had been dealing with calf discomfort, came off the NYCFC bench in the 60th minute.

Toronto started aggressively with NYCFC looking a little rusty while searching for counter-attack possibilities. New York began to work its way into the match, only to see the chances go Toronto’s way as the visitors turned the screws on offence.

Pozuelo forced a diving one-handed save from Johnson with a right-footed strike in the 15th minute. Nicolas Benezet then shot just wide in the 20th minute.

NYCFC caught Toronto off guard in the 29th minute on a quick free kick that found Argentine forward Valentin Castellanos all alone. But Westberg made the save on the New Yorkers’ only shot on target in the first half.

Referee Jair Marrufo came in for a torrent of boos in the 30th minute when NYCFC’s Alexandru Mitrita was shown a yellow card on a play where Benezet seemed to tumble on his own.

Johnson bobbled the ensuing Pozuelo free kick from outside the box but eventually got a handle on the ball.

Johnson made a splendid reflex save in the 37th minute to deny Osorio after a slick buildup by Toronto.

The goal lit a fire under NYCFC which came hard at Toronto. Castellano shot just wide in the 58th minute.

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.

It marked the second time NYCFC has played at the 42,000-capacity Citi Field. NYCFC played Columbus to a 2-2 draw there in the 2017 regular-season finale.

One goal was on the third base line with the other in right-centre field, with home plate, the pitching mound and first base out of the field of play. Grass covered the part of the baseball infield that was in play.

The dimensions mirrored the tight fit at Yankee Stadium, with a stiff breeze also factoring in.

NYCFC bunting and electronic displays helped the home-town soccer flavour although the Let’s Go Mets sign on the main scoreboard was hard to miss. The protective netting behind home plate was also still up.

Toronto may have welcomed the move, given it is 0-2-4 all-time in regular-season play at the home of the Yankees. TFC did humble NYCFC 5-0 there in the 2016 playoffs, however.

NYCFC lost just once at home during the 2019 regular season (11-1-5).

Toronto came into Wednesday’s game riding an 11-game undefeated streak (5-0-6) in league play. It had not lost since Aug. 3, a 2-0 setback at the New York Red Bulls.

New York City FC had suffered just one defeat in its last 11 games (8-1-2). And it had gone undefeated in its previous eight home games in league play.

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