Heber consoles Ronald Matarrita after the game. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
QUEENS, N.Y. — E LI
New York City FC took care of that Wednesday night, losing in yet another baseball park.
Playing well below its potential and standing as the Eastern Conference champions and top seed in the bracket, City suffered an excruciating 2-1 elimination defeat to fourth-seeded Toronto FC at Citi Field.
Alejandro Pozuelo converted a penalty kick in the 90th minute to snap a 1-1 tie and lift Toronto FC before a crowd of 19,829.
The loss meant NYCFC had been eliminated in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, all on the team’s first try. The first three exits were in home-and-home conference semifinals. This match was a single-game elimination.
Toronto FC will play the winner of Thursday night’s conference semifinal between defending champion Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union on the road next Wednesday. Had NYCFC won, it would have hosted that match at its usual home venue, Yankee Stadium.
Pozuelo’s PK was set up by a hard foul by NYCFC left back Ronald Matarrita, who fouled second-half sub Richie Laryea with a hard tackle on the right side of the box. Pozuelo lofted his ensuing kick into the net as goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had played a stellar game to keep NYCFC in the match, dove to his right.
NYCFC showed its rust of not playing for 17 days in the opening half; the team last performed Oct. 6, a 2-1 victory in Philadelphia. As the top seeded, City earned a bye in the first round and it definitely showed on a crisp autumn night.
The opening half was all Toronto FC and all Johnson.
If it hadn’t been for Johnson’s acrobatic saves, the visitors could have gone into the locker with a multiple-goal lead. Instead, it was a scoreless deadlock.
Statistics showed Toronto FC’s domination, outshooting NYCFC, 6-1, and placing four shots on target to City’s one.
It took only five minutes for Toronto to penetrate the hosts’ defense as Tsubasa Endoh forced Johnson to make a diving save.
Johnson continued to showcase his goal-saving prowess, denying Pozuelo with a diving save in the 15th minute and on a free kick in the 31st minute. He wasn’t finished with his one-man savior show, parrying away Jonathan Orosio’s hard, 17-yard shot in the 37th minute.
NYCFC’s chances? They were few and far between. In fact, City’s lone chance came in the 29th minute as Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg saved Valentín Castellanos.
Toronto FC’s go-ahead goal in the 48th minute began when an NYCFC throw-in was cleared out of the visitors’ end. An air ball sailed into the penalty area and it appeared that City’s center back tandem of Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot appeared they were more content in heading the ball than clearing it out of harm’s way.
Callens headed it high into the air to Chanot, who duplicated his feat. The ball dropped to Pozuelo, who had Johnson dead to rights from 12 yards for a 1-0 Toronto FC lead.
NYCFC head coach Dome Torrent introduced Heber into the game in place of Keaton Parks on the hour and that helped boost the hosts’ energy. It worked as City kept the pressure on shots on the visitors’ net.
Nine minutes later, Maxi Moralez worked a couple of quick moves to give himself some room on the left flank as he drilled a cross to Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Tajouri-Shradi volleyed the ball from 10 yards past Westberg for a 1-1 tie.