EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Thanks to second-half goals Sunday by Ayo Akinola and Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC goes into the final week of the MLS regular season with a shot at the Supporters' Shield.
Toronto's 2-1 comeback win over Inter Miami coupled with Philadelphia's 2-1 defeat at Columbus earlier in the day left TFC and the Union with identical 13-4-5 records.
But Toronto will have to win at the New York Red Bulls next Sunday and hope Philadelphia drops points against visiting New England given the Union have the tiebreaker edge.
"With everything that transpired today...(it) means it goes down to the last game, which is what we were hoping for today" said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
That is assuming COVID-19 doesn't complicate matters with cancellations on the final day of the regular season.
The Supporters' Shield goes to the team with the best-regular season record — and the playoff home-field advantage and US$150,00 prize that goes with it. Toronto won it in 2017 when it also claimed the MLS Cup and Canadian Championship.
Due to pandemic-related game cancellations, MLS has decided that 2020 playoff qualification will be decided by points per game rather than total points. The next relevant tiebreaker in this case is goal difference, where Philadelphia holds a 22-8 edge over Toronto, so the Union will get the trophy if both win Sunday.
Pozuelo delivered the winner in the 84th minute from the penalty spot Sunday and Toronto staved off a late Miami charge for the victory. Not for the first time, Richie Laryea created the penalty — going down at contact with defender Ben Sweat after slashing into the penalty box.
"When you're getting tired in the latter part of the game, for any team, dealing with Richie is a nightmare," said Vanney.
Pozuelo left goalkeeper John McCarthy rooted to the spot as he converted his 11th penalty in MLS regular-season and playoff action. It was his ninth goal of the season and his seventh straight penalty kick success — and fifth this season.
"We already knew it was a goal before he even took it," said Akinola.
It was Toronto's first-ever meeting with expansion Miami (6-13-3). And it marked Toronto's 13th straight game away from BMO Field. A limited number of spectators was allowed for the first time during Toronto's time in East Hartford with attendance announced at 1,394 on a rainy, windy night at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
Toronto chartered home after the game, for a few days under quarantine with loved ones before returning south for the regular-season finale.
Toronto was coming off back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and New York City FC that followed a nine-game undefeated run (7-0-2). Miami lost 2-1 at FC Dallas midweek and has won just one of its last five (1-3-1).
While Toronto had almost 65 per cent of possession in the first half, it managed just one shot on target.
Blaise Matuidi broke the deadlock in the 42nd minute after Toronto fullback Tony Gallacher lost the ball to Lewis Morgan on the right flank. Morgan's first attempt at a cross from the byline hit Chris Mavinga but the ball came back to him.
His second attempt then bounced off Michael Bradley to Matuidi, whose low left-footed shot found the corner on the goal. It was Miami's first shot on target and a first MLS goal for Matuidi, a World Cup winner with France whose club resume includes Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
Toronto tied it up in the 55th minute when Akinola, returning from injury, outmuscled a Miami defender to get to a high ball from substitute Patrick Mullins. He controlled it with his chest twice as he headed towards goal, then poked a shot past McCarthy for his ninth of the season.
Miami star forward Gonzalo Higuain came close to a 79th-minute goal but his swerving shot — after a magnificent touch to control a cross — cracked off the crossbar.
Vanney made six changes to his starting lineup.
Restored to health, Akinola and Mavinga made their first starts since Oct. 14. There was also a first MLS start for 18-year-old midfielder Ralph Priso, who had looked lively in two appearances off the bench since signing a first-team contract Oct. 14.
"I thought he was excellent...For his first start in MLS, that's a hell of a way to start," said Vanney.
Brazilian fullback Auro returned from suspensions with defender Eriq Zavaleta and Tsubasa Endoh also inserted into the starting 11.
But fullback Justin Morrow joined a crowded injury list that includes goalkeeper Alex Bono, midfielders Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio and forwards Jozy Altidore, Piatti and Achara.
"If we put everybody in bubble wrap and we get through the next week, we should get a couple of guys back," said Vanney.
Altidore and Piatti are the longest-term casualties and may not be ready until the playoffs.
Miami was missing three-quarters of its backline with centre backs Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Andres Reyes suspended and fullback Nico Figal injured.
Entering weekend play, Miami was on the fringe of the playoffs in 11th place in the Eastern Conference going into weekend play, just behind Chicago. The top 10 makes the playoffs in the East with No. 7 facing No. 10 and No. 8 meeting No. 9 in play-in games.
"We have many key players missing but we had players that were able to step up...and we lost a match that we deserved to win," Miami coach Diego Alonso said through an interpreter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2020.
The Canadian Press