MONTREAL — On a night when arguably the biggest club match in Canadian history was delayed because of a pair of mismeasured penalty areas, it's tough to imagine that the biggest blunder might have been in Toronto FC's tactical setup.
Riding a wave of great results thanks to a shift to a high-pressing 3-5-2 formation, TFC lined up on the hard artificial turf at Olympic Stadium in its newfound shape, hoping to squeeze mistakes out of a Montreal Impact side that thrives on the counterattack.
Toronto's game plan went out the window almost from the opening kick, and the club found itself down 3-0 after 53 minutes and looking like it didn't have an answer for the Impact's relentless transition game.
Yet somehow, the club managed to battle back to a respectable 3-2 scoreline, giving life to the two-legged MLS Eastern Conference final that looked like it was over after one half of play.
"Our guys should feel good about how they got themselves back into this because it wasn't looking good there for a little while," TFC coach Greg Vanney said. "We made some adjustments, started winning some balls in better areas and getting a little more dangerous, and finished off a couple chances.
"I don't think anybody's due any congratulations yet, but there's a big game still to come."
That the second leg at an over-capacity BMO Field next week even means anything is quite impressive, given the terrible start TFC had against its main rival. A shift to a 4-3-3 at the hour mark, and the introduction of Canadian duo Tosaint Ricketts and Will Johnson, gave life to a team that looked to be dead and buried.
Although he didn't get an official assist, Ricketts' speed and athleticism directly caused TFC's first goal in the 68th minute, while Johnson's energy helped disrupt the Impact midfield into a giveaway that led to the second Toronto tally (which was assisted by Ricketts).
The two players were obvious catalysts, but Vanney credited his entire team for scrapping its way back into the game in front of a hostile crowd of 61,004 noisy fans.
"I think we've grown up a lot," Vanney said. "There wasn't a TFC team before that would have been able to dig themselves out of a hole like that, and that's a tribute to the character of this group, the belief, because there weren't a lot of things going overly well for us during a lot of the game."
While it's easy to use cliches when talking about the type of spirited comeback TFC displayed Tuesday night, the players themselves were proud of the character shown while also critical of a dreadful start that allowed Montreal to claim a three-goal lead.
"I think that we played into their hands a little bit," defender Drew Moor said, while also conceding he thought the game may have been slipping away at the 3-0 mark. "Our response was unbelievable. [It was] obviously not a good start to the game, but we set ourselves up extremely well for the return leg."
TFC captain Michael Bradley, who was part of a U.S. national team that over the past week and a half dropped two matches and saw its coach fired, was even more direct in assessing his club's performance Tuesday.
"Nothing went how we would have liked tonight," Bradley said. "Nothing went how we planned, nothing went the way we prepared, but that's football sometimes and you don't get anywhere if you can't play on those days.
"And you don't get anywhere if you don't have a group that, even on days when things don't come easy, can keep after it and find ways to fight and still come away with something."
Bradley acknowledged that TFC's propensity to play until the final whistle — Toronto was among the best teams this year in MLS over the final 20 minutes of games — probably saved the club's season and gave the 36,000 ticket-holders a reason to show up to BMO Field next week for the second leg.
"It would have been an easy night to pack it in especially after the start we had, especially then when they make the third, but we kept at it," he added.
The fact that TFC has anything to play for next Wednesday is a minor miracle. Will it be enough to swing momentum toward the Red half of this East final?
"At the beginning of the year, if somebody had slid a piece of paper in front of us and said, 'You're going to get 90 minutes at home, in front of 36,000 or 37,000 people at BMO Field, and all you have to do is win to get to MLS Cup,' I think most of us would have taken it," Bradley said. "So that's what we get and we're going to go for it in a big way."