TORONTO — If there's anything that Toronto FC proved in its epic 7-5 aggregate victory over the Montreal Impact in the MLS Eastern Conference final, it's that it takes far more than 11 players to win soccer games.
Wednesday night's rollercoaster 5-2 victory for TFC was the latest example of that, as once again players came off the bench to influence the game. This time it was a pair of substitutes who scored the two goals in extra time that propelled Toronto to its first MLS Cup final, as Benoit Cheyrou — with his very first touch — and Tosaint Ricketts put the game and the tie on ice in the 98th and 100th minutes, respectively.
"I said get to the back post, diving header, try to put it in," TFC coach Greg Vanney joked when asked what he told Cheyrou to do upon his 97th-minute entrance. "And if you could do it on your first touch it'll bring me a lot of relief."
While Vanney was obviously having a bit of fun describing Cheyrou's instant impact off the bench, the truth is that TFC's bench was the difference between it and the Impact over the course of the two legs.
Last week's first leg was done-and-dusted at 3-0 for Montreal until Ricketts and Will Johnson injected new life into the Reds in the 60th minute, with both players being direct contributors to the two away goals that gave their team a lifeline.
And Wednesday, Cheyrou and Ricketts were the catalysts, alongside a rampant Jozy Altidore.
While the stars rightfully continue to garner most of the headlines for TFC's success, Vanney said the overall depth of his squad is a large factor for his team preparing to host the biggest game of the MLS calendar.
"That's something that we've really worked on over the last year, especially this past year, to try to create some depth and to also have some guys with experience that we could always turn to," Vanney said. "[We sought out] different types of players, guys who can bring different things to the equation, and it's taken me a little time to get to know how to best use each of these guys, but I think we're in a position now where we brought in guys who have been able to make a difference at the right times and the right place."
"They went out and proved they were ready and then some and I couldn't be more proud of them," he added.
While praising his substitutes, the coach stressed that it's not only the players who participated in Wednesday's epic contest who shared in TFC's success. Vanney noted that all of his players, even the ones in the press box at kickoff, played a role in getting Toronto to the MLS Cup final.
"One of the things that I do want to say is the guys who were in the locker room, the guys who played in the 18, and the guys on the bench were fantastic tonight, but I give a lot of credit to the guys who weren't in the 18 because they played like crazy this week to get these guys ready," Vanney said. "They were excellent all week in training and really gave us things to think about to help us get prepared, so those guys have to be included in this. They weren't there tonight on the field but they're every bit a part of us being able to do this."
Defender Drew Moor, one of the first names on Vanney's team sheet, agreed with his coach. It wasn't just in the latest playoff series that the entirety of TFC's squad depth was tested, he said.
"I think we showed all season how deep we are," Moor said. "We've had a couple of teenagers out on the field a couple of times this year. We battled some injuries, and some international absences. You have to be deep to get this deep into the playoffs. We're going to have to do it again here in 10 days but, to get goals from guys that don't always score was a huge boost and they were monsters tonight."
As for the players on the bench, they've bought into the need for good, experienced depth on hand, even if it means they don't get to play as many minutes as they'd prefer. A well-traveled international like Ricketts knows his value is sometimes best shown late in games, which his two goals and one assist in just 117 playoff minutes have shown thus far.
For Ricketts, the ends justify the means, and he explained what keeps him motivated from a champagne-soaked TFC locker room after Wednesday's match.
"This moment right now, actually," Ricketts said when asked what keeps him going on the bench. "I've been visualizing this all day, coming back in the dressing room with the boys and just celebrating. Just getting that monkey off our back, so to speak."