Toronto FC gets hot at the right time in run to MLS final

TORONTO (AP) — Toronto FC’s season has been a slow boil. Now Greg Vanney’s team is starting to sizzle.

And in reaching the MLS Cup for the third time in four years, Toronto is renewing acquaintances with an old foe in the Seattle Sounders. But to claim the championship again, it will have to do it the hard way — with a third straight playoff win away from home.

“We’re definitely on a mission,” goalkeeper Quentin Westberg said. “Determination is the key word in these playoffs for us.”

Toronto showed that resolve in staving off league champion Atlanta United FC in the Eastern Conference final Wednesday. Trailing early, it weathered Atlanta’s early push and won 2-1 behind a 78th-minute goal from Nick DeLeon.

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Vanney saw the game as a microcosm of his team’s season.

“Early in the year we battled. We went through midseason, kept our head above water, got our team back together and have been on a run,” he said. “And tonight, look it was similar. We were missing a couple of guys. But the group of guys that were out there, nobody outside of our club thought could maybe get it done. Except for our fans and us.”

Toronto’s troubles started even before the season began. General manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who helped revive the franchise after arriving in 2013, left to take over Columbus. Star striker Sebastian Giovinco and playmaker Victor Vazquez headed to Asia. Dutch international defender Gregory van der Wiel was let go after training camp. Replacements, other than Spanish star Alejandro Pozuelo, were slow to arrive.

But as players returned from the Gold Cup in early July, Toronto gradually came together. The arrival of center back Omar Gonzalez from Mexico provided some defensive glue.

Toronto has lost just twice in 18 regular-season and playoff games (10-2-6) since the Gold Cup. And it goes to the Nov. 10 championship game undefeated in its last 13 league outings (7-0-6). Toronto has not lost in league play since a 2-0 defeat Aug. 3 at the New York Red Bulls.

“It’s a long season and we always felt like if we could keep ourselves going, if we could get through the summer months, get through the Gold Cup and then get our full group back together, that we’d have a real chance to put it all together in the second half of the season,” captain Michael Bradley said.

Bradley’s future remains unclear — his contract expires after the season. Neither he nor the club is discussing the matter. General manager Ali Curtis has declined comment on reports that Bradley has a $6.5 million option that kicks in if Toronto wins the title.

Toronto lost to the Sounders in a penalty shootout in the 2016 final, avenging that loss with a 2-0 win in the 2017 championship game, both played in Toronto.

A big question for Toronto will be the health of Gonzalez (hamstring) and forward Jozy Altidore (quad) after both missed the victory over Atlanta. With the final more than a week away the additional recovery time raises the chances each could play.

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