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Altidore plays hero as Toronto FC beats Columbus, returns to MLS Cup final

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore scores on Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen during the second half of the MLS Eastern Conference final in Toronto, on Nov. 29, 2017.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jozy Altidore, limping on a bum ankle, scored in the 60th minute to return Toronto FC to the MLS Cup final with a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday.

After a scoreless tie in Game 1 Nov. 21 in Ohio, Columbus needed a win or draw with goals to advance. But an ailing Altidore took matters into his own hands in dramatic fashion before a sellout crowd of 30,392 on a crisp night at BMO Field.

The goal started with an Alex Bono goal kick that found Sebastian Giovinco deep in Columbus territory. The diminutive Italian held off several defenders and backheeled the ball to Altidore who stabbed it to Victor Vazquez. The Spanish midfielder paused and then dinked a pass to Altidore who rolled a right-footed shot past Zack Steffen.

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It was Toronto's first goal in 258 minutes. The last score came almost a month ago — on Oct. 30, via a Giovinco free kick in the 72nd minute of a 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena.

Columbus striker Ola Kamara nearly tied it up in the 87th minute but couldn't get a boot to the ball on a raking cross. Bono then beat Kamara to a cross in stoppage time.

Altidore had seemed destined for an early night after suffering an ankle injury in the 50th minute in a collision with Crew wingback Harrison Afful. The big man needed treatment on and off the field and Toronto prepared to send in substitute Armando Cooper.

But Altidore soldiered on, coming up big when needed. He limped off eight minutes after the goal.

Toronto will host either the Seattle Sounders or Houston Dynamo in the Dec. 9 MLS Cup final. The Sounders, who took the title from Toronto in a penalty shootout last year, lead the Western Conference final 2-0 going into Game 2 Thursday in Seattle.

Steffen played his part in the first half Wednesday, stopping a Vazquez penalty in the 26th minute. It was the fourth penalty save this season for the 22-year-old 'keeper — and his second against Toronto. Steffen saved Altidore's penalty in a 2-1 Columbus win May 10.

Top-seeded Toronto liked where it stood going into Game 2, needing a win on home soil to advance to the final. And it had all its weapons back with Altidore and Giovinco returning from the suspension that kept them out of the series opener.

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Thanks to the league's drawn-out playoff schedule, the two forwards had not played since Nov. 5 when Toronto dispatched the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinal.

After playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation without its top strikers in Columbus, Toronto reverted to its more usual 3-5-2. Jonathan Osorio replaced Marky Delgado in the midfield with Eriq Zavaleta resuming his normal position in the backline.

Fifth-seeded Columbus was without Brazilian midfielder Artur, suspended after picking up a second yellow card last time out. Mohammed Abu replaced him with Lalas Abubakar coming in for Jukka Raitala.

Coach Gregg Berhalter switched to three in the back, opting for a 3-4-2-1 instead of the 4-2-3-1 last time out.

Columbus had the better start, with Toronto having trouble penetrating the visitors' half. Vazquez managed a weak shot on goal in the ninth minute — Toronto's first shot on target of the series — after a Giovinco free kick bounced off the wall.

Referee Ismail Elfath ignored the crowd when Osorio, on minimal contact, went down in the penalty box in the 14th minute.

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After a nice buildup by Federico Higuain and Kamara, Justin Meram had a good look on goal in the 21st but a poor first touch and a Michael Bradley saving tackle rescued Toronto.

Elfath pointed to the penalty spot when former TFC defender pulled Drew Moor down on a corner. Steffen made a fine save, getting a hand to Vazquez's spot kick. The Spaniard, who had converted his three previous penalty attempts this season, put his hands on his head as the ball was parried away.

Including penalty shootouts, Steffen has stopped six of 13 penalty kicks this season, with another off target.

Toronto began to stroke the ball around but could not break down the Crew defence until late in the half when Columbus had to resort to some desperate defending as Toronto pressed in the penalty box.

Delgado came in for Zavaleta to open the second half, with Toronto switching to what looked like a 4-1-3-2 — or 4-4-2 with Bradley shielding the backline at the bottom of a midfield diamond.

Vazquez came close with a free kick from a tight angle in the 47th minute.

Meram shot high in the 80th minute in one of Columbus' best chances.

Bad blood bubbled late when Columbus defender Jonathan Mensah was cautioned for making contact with Cooper's head as they went for a high ball.

Toronto looks to add the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy to the Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champion and Supporters' Shield for finishing first in the regular season (20-5-9 with a league-record 69 points).

Of the 20 previous Supporters' Shield winners, only six went on to win the MLS Cup. Another lost in the final.

The last teams to make it to back-to-back championships games were the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. They met in the 2011 and '12 championship games with the Galaxy winning both times.

Toronto led the league with an .853 winning percentage (13-1-3) during the regular season. Including the playoffs it had only lost twice this year at BMO Field. But those losses came in its last four home games.

It put just four shots on target in its three previous playoff games, with none in Columbus.

Columbus had failed to score in three of its four previous playoff games, beating Atlanta in a penalty shootout and New York City FC 4-3 on aggregate.

The Crew's last goal was a stoppage-time strike Oct. 31 by Afful in a 4-1 win over New York City FC. And coming into the game, it had been 385 minutes since Columbus had scored a road goal in the post-season.

Still Columbus arrived having lost just once — 2-0 to NYCFC in the playoffs — since Aug. 5 (an 8-1-5 run). Despite an uncertain future — ownership is talking of move to Austin, Texas, after the 2018 season — Columbus has done its talking on the field.

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