TORONTO — Thanks to a 2-1 win over Pacific FC, Toronto FC has a chance to end a disappointing season with a trophy.
But Toronto made life difficult for itself in setting up a showdown with CF Montreal in the Canadian Championship final, failing to put away the Canadian Premier League leader after taking a 2-0 lead after 25 minutes Wednesday.
Jozy Altidore and Jacob Shaffelburg scored for Toronto, which controlled most of the game with its speed and accuracy on the ball, before an announced crowd of 5,131 at BMO Field.
Pacific's Alejandro Diaz scored in the 83rd minute, making for an interesting finale after knocking home a Kadin Chung cross. Victor Blasco started the play with a slide-rule pass into the penalty box that just eluded Toronto captain Michael Bradley.
Pacific couldn't take advantage of a pair of late corners.
"We knew that it was a difficult team, it was a resilient team and they were not going to give up," said Toronto coach Javier Perez. "That was the plan, just to put the game away early.
"I think the first half we did the job. And then the second half we had opportunities to (make it) 3-0, which would have completely determined the fate of the game. But we didn't and we got a little bit more relaxed, comfortable … We should have put this game away much earlier. But in the end we got the job done and we are in the final which is all that counts."
While Toronto outshot Pacific 14-13 (7-5 in shots on target) over 90 minutes, the visitors held a 9-6 (3-1 on target) edge in the second half.
Toronto could have added to its total if it had been more clinical. Pacific goalkeeper Callum Irving also did his bit to keep it close.
"We stuck to our game plan and gave them a good go," said Pacific coach Pa-Modou Kah. "The only difference you could see today was just a little bit of quality that they have. Two quick goals, which is the difference. But overall I think we stood up to them … I'm very proud of the boys. The boys played fantastic and they showed a lot of heart."
Pacific gave it a good go in what Kah called the "biggest game ever in our club history," but couldn't get out of the early hole.
It had more of the ball in the second half, but rarely threatened until Diaz struck.
A date has yet to be set for the final, with the Voyageurs Cup and a berth in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, the flagship club competition in the region, on the line.
Montreal won the last Canadian Championship contested, defeating Toronto in a penalty shootout after the two-legged 2019 final was knotted 1-1 on aggregate.
CPL champion Forge FC and Pacific won fans with their play in this year's tournament.
Montreal needed an 11-round penalty shootout, ultimately decided by the goalkeepers stepping up to the penalty spot with Sebastian Breza stopping Forge counterpart Triston Henry and then scoring himself to give Montreal an 8-7 win.
Pacific knocked off the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-3 in the tournament's preliminary round — Vancouver fired coach Marc Dos Santos the next day — and Cavalry FC 1-0 in the quarterfinal.
Toronto got a bye to the quarterfinal where it thumped York United FC 4-0.
Pacific (13-8-6) tops the CPL, albeit by one point over Forge FC and Cavalry FC, with one game left before the playoffs.
Toronto (6-17-10) is 26th in the 27-team MLS with one game remaining.
Wednesday's game featured two teams in totally different snack brackets.
CPL teams are each allowed to spend between $650,000 and $850,000 on their entire playing roster.
Toronto's starting 11 totalled US$13.7 million in payroll with Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo leading the way at US$4.69 million.
After an even start, Altidore put Toronto ahead in the 15th minute with a pretty goal.
Shaffelburg sliced open the defence with a short pass that went through the legs of defender Lukas McNaughton. Altidore curled a shot past a diving Irving off the post and into the net.
Altidore's sixth goal in the Canadian Championship tied him for the competition’s all-time scoring lead with Jonathan Osorio, former Toronto star Sebastian Govinco and former Montreal marquee man Ignacio Piatti.
It was also Altidore's third goal in his last four games and his 79th for TFC in all competitions, just four behind franchise-leader Giovinco.
After Altidore's goal, Toronto then began to string passes together, forcing Pacific on the back foot.
Shaffelburg doubled the lead in the 25th minute, beating Irving from close range after some nice interplay with Richie Laryea down the left flank.
The Pacific penalty box was filled with defenders but Shaffelburg, who has been in a rich vein of form of late, found a crease and made the CPL side pay.
Toronto managed to minimize the threat of Pacific attacking midfielder Marco Bustos in the half, save a weak shot in stoppage time — Pacific's first on target. Bustos had 22 touches in the first half, seventh best among Pacific.
Former Toronto FC homegrown player Manny Aparicio had a fine game and was responsible for Pacific's best chance of the half. He tested Quentin Westberg with a long-range swerving shot also in stoppage time.
Bustos, who seems to be favouring a leg as the half ended, was replaced by Kunle Dada-Luke, a product of the TFC academy, after the break.
Perez fielded arguably his strongest lineup available, making seven changes from the team that tied Atlanta on the weekend.
Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo and centre back Chris Mavinga normally starters, were out through injury, as was goalkeeper Alex Bono who has been No. 1 for most of the season.
Centre back Omar Gonzalez failed a late fitness test with leg discomfort, with Kemar Lawrence pairing with Bradley at the heart of the defence. Noble Okello, who had been destined for the bench, started in midfield.
Toronto lost another defender in first-half stoppage time with Brazilian fullback Auro limping off.
Pacific was without forward Terran Campbell, suspended for yellow card accumulation.
Tournament rules require teams to use at least three Canadian starters. Pacific had 10 compared to Toronto's three.
Toronto wraps up its MLS regular season Sunday against D.C. United, while Pacific visits Cavalry FC.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Canadian Championship was reduced to a one-off final between Toronto and Forge that has yet to be played or even scheduled.
Toronto has won the Voyageurs Cup seven times since 2009.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press