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Title-starved Toronto beats Impact in instant classic to advance to MLS Cup

TORONTO -- If Toronto FC's enthralling 5-2 win over the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference final second leg wasn't the best playoff match in Major League Soccer's 21-season history, it was close.

The only other game that's even in the conversation is a 2003 affair between the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes that the Quakes -- who would go on to hoist the MLS Cup that year -- won on a second-leg golden goal after trailing 4-0 on aggregate earlier in the decisive contest.

Yet even that famous comeback by the Quakes, which took place on a narrow, pockmarked field inside a college football stadium in what was a lifetime ago for the league, didn't have the big-time atmosphere that backdropped this match, let alone the constant momentum swings that turned Wednesday's tilt into an instant classic.

The Impact, who led the first leg 3-0 at one point, held a 4-2 advantage in the total-goals series after Dominic Oduro opened the scoring in the 24th minute in the decisive second match. But TFC roared back through Armando Cooper and Jozy Altidore to make it 4-4 before half-time and swing the series lead on away goals in their favor.

Montreal edged in front once again on Ignacio Piatti's strike early in the second half before Nick Hagglund's powerful header sent the series to extra time, where Toronto scored twice and ultimately prevailed. TFC, which had never won a playoff game before this season, will now host the Seattle Sounders on Dec. 10 in MLS Cup. Still, the drama of how it got there won't soon be forgotten by any of the 36,000 in attendance who watched through 120 minutes and a downpour at BMO Field.

"There were so many twists and turns along the way. Down 1-0, up 2-1, 2-2," Reds captain Michael Bradley said after the game, noting the added tension of the final 25 minutes, when another Montreal away goal would've required the hosts to score two more to advance.

"At 3-2, it was on a knife's edge because obviously we were pushing, we were the team that was still for the most part getting chances, but one play the other way, and all of a sudden we have a lot to do."

In most two-leg playoff series, an early goal by the visitors to go up by two overall would have been a hill too high to climb for the home side. But even after Oduro and the Impact struck first, Montreal never seemed in control and TFC never seemed likely to give up. Still, coach Mauro Biello rued the three set-piece goals his team gave up. And the Impact's inability to find another tally before the extra period -- during which time away goals don't serve as the tiebreaker -- was their undoing.

"We're disappointed," Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush said. "We had the advantage, lost it, and got it again. Lots of emotions throughout the game. Toronto deserved the win -- I think that they were the better team, especially in the overtime session -- and I think that if we were to win the game, we had to do it in regulation, when the away goals gave us the advantage. Unfortunately, they capitalized on their chances in overtime."

As the drama unfolded during the match, TFC coach Greg Vanney was too busy concentrating on what he could do to influence the outcome to appreciate the craziness on display. Indeed, it was two of Vanney's three substitutes, Benoit Cheyrou and Tosaint Ricketts, who scored in the 98th and 100th minutes to seal the victory.

When it was finally over, though, Vanney, who spent 10 seasons in MLS as a player, was able to take a larger view of the contest's -- and the series' -- place in league lore.

"The game tonight was a roller coaster," Vanney said. "It went from obviously giving up the first goal, which wasn't in the plan, to fighting back and getting back on top coming into half-time. So we're preparing to lock down the game, and lo and behold we give another one back. ... It's been a stressful week just trying to do everything I can to make the guys feel like they're ready to go in this game. They proved they were ready and then some.

"Once I took a step back from the celebration, [I could appreciate] the excitement of the two games, the quantity of goals, the amount of attacking and back-and-forth and twists and turns," Vanney said. "I can't imagine that the experience of emotions that people went through, that there aren't a lot of new soccer fans. For me, it's the most exciting playoff event that I've ever been a part of or that I've ever seen."

On that front, he's far from alone.