Toronto FC beat Impact to take Eastern Conference lead

MONTREAL — The decision to return to play was not taken lightly by Justin Morrow and his Toronto FC teammates, who wrestled with the implications of their actions for the last two days.

With the guidance of the Morrow-led Black Players for Change (BPC), Toronto took the Saputo Stadium pitch and defeated the Montreal Impact 1-0 Friday night for top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The game was the first in MLS since the postponement of five of six matches Wednesday night after NBA players decided to not play their playoff games in the wake of the shooting by police of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin over the weekend.

“For me, it was incredibly tough to play tonight,” said Morrow, the executive director of the BPC. “There were a lot of players on Montreal that didn’t want to play.

“We use our platform as professional athletes in MLS to make change. And if we don’t see the results of that, then there’s no point of doing what we do. This is why we kneel, this is why we protest, so we can have something tangible coming out of it.”

Kickoff Friday between the two soccer rivals was never a guarantee. Both Montreal and Toronto cancelled pre-game media availabilities that were planned for Thursday afternoon, putting the encounter in doubt.

But MLS resumed activities following a meeting between players, the players association and the BPC. Morrow called the discussions leading up to that decision “chaotic” and “exhausting.”

“It was hard on the Black players, but I can’t understate how many players of other races joined in this fight and were real leaders,” he said. “Not all these games get postponed if all these people outside of Black people step up to the plate. We were able to show a unified tribe.”

Jozy Altidore was not in the lineup for Toronto. Coach Greg Vanney said it was for “personal” reasons but would not elaborate further.

Players from both teams wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts in the pre-game warmup and took a knee in a moment of reflection prior to the game’s opening whistle. Most players also knelt during the anthem.

Several Impact (3-3-1) players confirmed the team did not want the match to take place and were surprised when Toronto (5-0-3) expressed their desire to play.

“We decided as a group that we would not play,” said defender Rudy Camacho. “But the leaders of the cause called us and said they wanted to play. We found that a bit strange.

“In the end, we didn’t want to play today but we felt nobody had our backs. We’re a little disappointed by a few of our opponents.”

The game saw Toronto awarded a penalty shot when Emanuel Maciel handled the ball in the box early in the second half. Alejandro Pozuelo calmly slotted the ball into the bottom right corner of the net in the 50th minute with Clement Diop diving the wrong way.

The win extended Toronto’s unbeaten run to 18 games dating back to last season. It is the second-longest streak in Major League Soccer history.

TFC can tie the record when it faces Montreal in a rematch on Sept. 1 at BMO Field.

“We keep trying to get better and we keep trying to focus on the things we need to improve on,” said Vanney. “Today was a tough one for a lot of different things going on. We just had to lock it down to see this one out.

“I didn’t even know 19 was the number. It’s irrelevant.”

For a second straight contest there were 250 supporters in the stands at Saputo Stadium — the maximum allowed by Quebec’s department of public health. Fans were also in attendance for Montreal’s 2-0 win over Vancouver on Tuesday.

They made a small dent in the 20,801-seat venue but chanted and cheered throughout the game. Some waved rainbow-coloured flags in support of Pride Night in MLS. Fans outside the stadium provided even more atmosphere by setting off fireworks every few minutes.

Toronto has blanked its opposition in four consecutive regular-season games. Quentin Westberg earned a one-save clean sheet, his fourth this year.

Both teams were missing a handful of regular starters.

Montreal’s Samuel Piette and Saphir Taider skipped the game because their wives recently gave birth. Injured players Richie Laryea and Ayo Akinola were out for Toronto.

It was the fourth of nine games between Canada’s three MLS teams, with results counting toward the MLS regular-season standings. The best team through nine matches will play in the Canadian Championship final.

Notes: Jonathan Osorio made his 250th appearance in all competitions for TFC. TFC have yet to trail this season.

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