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Toronto FC II suffers heartbreaking loss to Columbus Crew II in MLS Next Pro playoffs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Goals by substitutes Coleman Gannon and Jordan Knight gave league-leading Columbus Crew II a 4-3 extra-time win over Toronto FC II in a wild MLS Next Pro Eastern Conference final Sunday.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Goals by substitutes Coleman Gannon and Jordan Knight gave league-leading Columbus Crew II a 4-3 extra-time win over Toronto FC II in a wild MLS Next Pro Eastern Conference final Sunday.

The Toronto FC reserve side had seemed destined for a comeback victory, only to see Columbus rally late in a game full of drama at Historic Crew Stadium.

With Toronto trailing 2-1, Themi Antonoglou forced extra time with a stoppage-time goal and then gave Toronto a 3-2 lead with an audacious 94th-minute strike from midfield. The 21-year-old midfielder corralled a Columbus shot that hit a body deep in his own end. He raced to midfield and, spotting Patrick Schulte off his line, chipped the MLS Next Pro goalkeeper of the year from just inside the centre line.

Knight levelled the score at 3-3 in the 109th minute. An Isaiah Parente free kick found Knight, who swivelled to beat a defender and then goalkeeper Luka Gavran with a shot on the short side.

The 19-year-old Gannon then delivered the coup de grace in the 119th minute, hammering home a rebound after Gavran had got a leg to a Noah Fuson shot.

Columbus will host either St. Louis City 2 or the Tacoma Defiance in the Oct. 8 championship game. They met later Sunday in the Western Conference final at Ralph Korte Stadium in Edwardsville, Ill.

It’s the inaugural season of MLS Next Pro, which features 21 teams — 20 MLS reserve sides and the independent Rochester New York FC. Seven more MLS clubs plan to field teams in MLS Next Pro next year. 

Whitecaps FC 2 (7-9-8) finished out of the playoffs, in seventh spot in the Western Conference. Montreal does not have an entry in the league. 

Parente’s 60th-minute penalty gave Columbus a 2-1 lead and the home side looked to be headed for the win as the clock wound down. But Antonoglou’s left-footed free kick three minutes into stoppage time found a space in the Columbus wall and beat a diving Schulte to level the score and send the game to extra time. 

Antonoglou, who saw 10 minutes of action with the TFC first team this season, had four goals and five assists in 21 regular-season appearances with TFC 2.

Fuson also scored for Columbus. Paul Rothrock replied for Toronto, which trailed 1-0 at the break.

Columbus pulled ahead 2-1 after referee Sergii Demianchuk pointed to the penalty spot for a handball when Toronto defender Antony Curic went to block a Ryan Telfer cross and the ball hit his arm without him knowing much about it.

The first half was all Columbus with the Crew reserve side outshooting Toronto 10-0 (2-0 in shots on target). But Toronto came out with purpose in the second half, tying the game in the 47th minute.

TFC II was facing some familiar faces in Columbus’ Jacen Russel-Rowe and Telfer.

Russell-Rowe, a 20-year-old forward from Brampton, Ont., spent seven years with the Toronto FC academy.

Telfer, a 28-year-old winger from Mississauga, Ont., signed with TFC 2 in March 2017 after spending two seasons at York University. He joined Columbus Crew 2 in April after spending the 2021 season with Atletico Ottawa of the Canadian Premier League.

Columbus has in-depth knowledge of Toronto’s talent with president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko, vice-president Jaime McMillan and assistant GM Corey Wray all having worked for TFC.

The Crew reserve side started another Canadian in defender Mo Farsi. The 22-year-old Farsi previously played for the CPL’s Cavalry FC, winning Best Under-21 Canadian Player honours in 2020.

Russell-Rowe led MLS Next Pro in scoring with 21 goals this season. Farsi’s 10 assists tied him for the league lead with Inter Miami CF II’s Romeo Beckham, the son of David Beckham.

Schulte, Russell-Rowe, Farsi and Parente were all named to the league’s Best XI.

Farsi and Russell-Rowe were the first Crew 2 players to sign a contract with the Columbus first team.

Fuson opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, darting past a pair of defenders to deflect a low cross by Telfer through Gavran’s legs. Russell-Rowe almost doubled the lead four minutes later but his powerful right-footed shot from just outside the penalty box bounced off the crossbar.

Toronto tied the game in the 47th minute, capitalizing on its first shot on goal. Rothrock took advantage of an errant pass from Schulte, who was under pressure from Toronto striker Jordan Perruzza. Rothrock stole the ball of defender Philip Quinton and then beat Schulte.

Columbus finished atop the MLS Next Pro regular-season standings at 16-3-5, also topping the Eastern Conference and Central Division.

Toronto went 12-9-3 in the regular season, finishing first in the Northeast Division, second in the Eastern Conference and seventh overall — 14 points behind Columbus.

TFC 2, which made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, downed the Philadelphia Union II 1-0 while Columbus defeated Rochester New York FC 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

This season marked the first foray into the playoffs for the TFC reserve side, which was formed in 2015 and played in the USL and USL League One before this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2022

The Canadian Press

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