A Toronto FC team assembled with a thick chequebook was officially eliminated from post-season contention for the eighth year in a row via a 1-1 tie Saturday with the Montreal Impact, the worst road team in the league, in a game that saw three players sent off.
The coup de grace was administered with Toronto's two biggest stars looking on from the stands. English striker Jermain Defoe was nursing the groin injury that has disrupted the second half of his season while American midfielder Michael Bradley, who along with captain Steven Caldwell is the conscience of the team, was suspended.
To make the playoffs, Toronto (11-14-8) had needed to win its remaining games against Montreal and New England and hope that fifth-place Columbus lost both its matches against New York and Philadelphia.
Instead Eastern Conference cellar-dweller Montreal (6-18-9) played spoiler, denying TFC the points it needed and booking Columbus a berth in the playoffs. The Crew play the Red Bulls on Sunday.
Montreal has now lost just once in its last six outings in all competitions (2-1-3). But it finishes the campaign winless on the road (0-12-5).
"It's disappointing. You look where we are in the standings, and there are a lot of things that we have to address, and areas where we have to adjust, but you have to have the ability to win on the road," said Montreal coach Frank Klopas.
Toronto can't have any complaints, picking up one point from 12 available in the last four matches. Despite setting several single-season records in 2014, its history of failure continues.
"You have to execute, you have to take points ... you must win the home ones, especially down the stretch" said Toronto coach Greg Vanney, citing a costly loss to Houston earlier this month.
"The draw today is not good enough in terms of results. Effort is one thing but execution and finishing games and taking points is what professional sports is about," he added. "We put in the effort but we didn't execute well enough."
Toronto, which entered the league in 2007, has never made the playoffs.
"The locker-room was gutted after today, because they know the season is done for them," said Vanney.
"We can be better for sure," he added, including himself in the equation.
This premature exit is all the more painful because of the raised expectations due to the signings of designated players Defoe, Bradley and Brazilian striker Gilberto, as well as a supporting cast featuring defender Justin Morrow, midfielders Jackson, Collen Warner, Dominic Oduro and Warren Creavalle and striker Luke Moore.
"A bloody big deal" was the TFC slogan that has come back to haunt the team. The salaries of the DPs alone totalled almost US$14 million this season.
Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, promised a year ago that the club would make the post-season this time.
"Mark it down, write it down, film it ... we're going to turn TFC around and we're going to make the playoffs next year," he told an Empire Club luncheon in October 2013 after Toronto finished 17th in the 19-team league with a 6-17-11 record.
Vanney had to offer a different message to his players after the game.
"I said take this feeling in. Because for me we should never ever have this feeling again," he said. "This should be the last time. This will be the last time that we don't make the playoffs."
The post-season has eluded the previous eight Toronto head coaches, including Ryan Nelsen who was axed along with five assistant coaches in August.
On the positive side, Toronto has set single-season franchise highs for wins (11) and points (41) this year. The previous marks were set in 2009 (10-11-9, 39 points). But it slid down the standings in the second half of the season.
"It was a roller-coaster ride the whole way," said goalie Joe Bendik.
But contrast Toronto's season with D.C. United, which went from 19th in the league last season with a 3-24-7 record to leading the Eastern Conference with a 16-9-7 record this season.
Toronto has a good core to build around with the likes of Bradley, Bendik, Caldwell, Gilberto, Morrow, Nick Hagglund and Jonathan Osorio. Defoe's status is up in the air, given the speculation surrounding the future at the closing of the last transfer window.
It also has three first-round picks in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
Montreal had the benefit of the wind at its back in the first half Saturday but Toronto struck first in the 20th minute, with Warren Creavalle's stylish volley finding the corner of Evan Bush's goal. The chance came after Luke Moore's shot squibbed off defender Matteo Ferrari high into the air before dropping nicely onto Creavalle's foot.
It was his first goal for Toronto FC — and the fourth of his four-year MLS career — and he may not score a nicer one.
Montreal tied it up in the 39th minute — against the run of play — on Brazilian attacking midfielder Felipe's powerful shot from the edge of the penalty box. Andres Romero knocked the ball over to him after taking a magnificent pass from captain Patrice Bernier just inside the Montreal side of midfield.
Impact striker Jack McInerney did his part, drawing both centre backs as he ran towards goal as Romero got the ball. That left Felipe wide open.
The Brazilian, a thorn in Toronto's side all afternoon, celebrated his third of the season by dancing in front of the Toronto fans in the southeast corner of the stadium.
Vanney called it classless, suggesting he would not take kindly to one of his own players taunting opposition supporters.
"Celebrate with yourselves and celebrate with your fans," he said. "Just don't worry about the opposing fans. But some people see it differently."
It was the 53rd goal conceded by Toronto this season.
Montreal defender Heath Pearce was sent off in the 82nd minute for a scissors tackle on substitute Dominic Oduro. Osorio was ejected in stoppage time, for a tackle on Felipe. Impact defender Hassoun Camara soon followed, for a second yellow.
Camara dug himself an ugly hole with a fifth-minute yellow card. In his bid to get at referee Baldomero Toledo, Camara had to be pulled away by another teammate.
In helping end the season for Montreal's Canadian rival, Bush saw the draw as being like a win.
"You always want the three points but this definitely feels like three points today," Bush said. "The way the game ended was a bit unfortunate but we got the result that we needed to knock them out of the playoffs and that's what we are happy about."
There were plenty of empty seats for the home finale on a breezy 11-degree day at BMO Field. But it was no fault of Montreal, which had a healthy travelling contingent in the west stand. The announced crowd was 18,329, the second straight non-sellout.
"It was an exciting game and more important than anything, it was great to see the amount of fans, our fans, that came from Montreal, the atmosphere was great," said Klopas. "It was good to put on a display like that. It's easy to say, I think we deserved to win the game but it was a very good performance in front of what felt like a home crowd with all our fans coming down here."
Argentine midfielder Ignacio Piatti, who joined the Impact as a designated player in July, sat out the game with a knee injury.
Montreal star striker Marco Di Vaio started on the bench after travelling to Italy for the midweek announcement that his old club Bologna is being bought by a consortium that includes Impact owner Joey Saputo.
Di Vaio, who is retiring at the end of the season, came on in the 79th minute. The Italian nearly recorded the winner in stoppage time but his shot deflected wide.
The Impact visit the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday in the final match of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage before returning home for its season finale Saturday against D.C. United in Di Vaio's swansong.
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