TORONTO - It was a game that seemed destined to end in yet more Toronto FC disappointment. But this time there was a happy ending for the MLS cellar-dwellers.
Terry Dunfield scored five minutes into stoppage time to give Toronto FC a 3-2 win over Vancouver in a wild game Wednesday night that appeared headed for a heartbreaking tie after the home side had gifted a goal to the Whitecaps on an earlier injury-time mistake.
For Toronto manager Paul Mariner, it was a Tony Robbins-type lesson of a game.
"As I've said many times this week, the brain is an unbelievable thing that keeps those legs going as far as football is concerned," said the former England international. "It's all about the state of mind. If you keep telling yourself that you're tired, then you are tired. But if you're willing to drive on, as we did for 90-plus minutes tonight, then anything's possible.
"I asked the players for a response from Philadelphia (a 3-0 loss Sunday) because that wasn't us and I think that we all got it."
Toronto (3-11-4) had pulled ahead 2-1 on second-half goals by rookie Luis Silva and captain Torsten Frings four minutes apart, only to see the bottom fall out one minute into stoppage time.
Goalie Milos Kocic tried to punch away a high cross and missed it, leaving Vancouver's Darren Mattocks a clear header that sent the ball looping into the goal. It was the second goal of the game for the rookie striker from Jamaica, who looked dangerous all night.
While most of the 19,821 fans at BMO Field hung their heads at the 2-2 score, the Toronto players kept their eye on the prize and blitzed the Vancouver goal.
"I think we were all wide-eyed looking at that and amazed at just how high he got and how well he timed it," Vancouver coach Martin Rennie said of the goal by the six-foot Mattocks. "He outjumped a goalie who's already six foot four who's able to use his hands. So that was an amazing jump."
Toronto won a corner and Dunfield, a former Vancouver player who scored against Toronto in the Whitecaps' MLS debut last season, rose majestically and headed in the winning goal off a Frings corner in the fifth minute of injury time.
"Probably the best feeling in my soccer career. That was incredible," said a delighted Dunfield, who may still be smiling after his first league goal for Toronto.
"It's been a long, tough season for us at the bottom there but the guys showed a lot of character to come back twice today."
There was supposed to be four minutes of injury time but the Vancouver score kept the clock ticking.
"I told Terry I owe him dinner," said Kocic, whose blushes were spared by the late goal. "He really stepped up for me and for the team and for everybody.
"We showed character tonight," he added.
After collecting three points in the first 10 games of the season under Aron Winter, Toronto has now picked up 10 in eight games under Mariner. And remarkably those eight games have been compressed into 26 days.
While Toronto remains at the foot of the standings, it still represents quite a turnaround for a defensively-challenged team that lacks depth in all positions.
Frings' go-ahead goal came in the 72nd minute after goalie Joe Cannon hit the turf in the wake of punching away an Eric Avila cross. The ball came to Frings and the former German international hammered home a right-footed shot from outside the penalty box with the goalie out of position.
Frings had come close seconds earlier, forcing a diving save from Cannon off a free kick. Silva had earned the kick after being scythed down by Alain Rochat.
Silva, who was influential all game, made it 1-1 in the 68th minute with his first MLS goal. And it was a thing of a beauty as he stuck out a foot to deflect in an Ashtone Morgan cross.
Fullback Lee Young-Pyo was off the pitch for both goals receiving treatment.
"By the time he was back on, we were 2-1 down," said Rennie, who noted that Morgan's cross and the corner both came in Lee's area. "So that was very disappointing, that was a major turning point in the game because we were winning and fairly comfortable.
"So to come out of that losing three goals leaves me scratching my head a little bit. But it's something that we're going to have to bounce back from."
Lee had a glorious chance to tie the game in the 85th minute but his shot rattled the right post.
Vancouver (8-5-6) had opened the scoring in the 50th minute after midfielder Barry Robson carved open the Toronto defence with a through ball to Mattocks, who seemed to have butchered the chance when his scuffed shot was stopped by Kocic as a nearby defender went flying. But the ball bounced back to the rookie striker and Mattocks moved towards the byline, slotting the ball into the empty net from a tight angle.
It was the fifth goal in nine games this season for the elusive Jamaican, taken second overall in the 2012 SuperDraft.
The goal was a bitter pill for Toronto, which had taken the game by the scruff of its neck late in the first half and come close to scoring. The second-half comeback was a welcome tonic, especially on the heels of the poor performance in Philadelphia.
The game' continued the Whitecaps' losing run at BMO Field.
Last season, Vancouver celebrated its MLS debut with a 4-2 win over visiting Toronto but later lost 1-0 at BMO Field on a goal by Nick Soolsma, a Dutch forward who was released earlier Wednesday.
The Whitecaps had more bad memories of Toronto this season after losing the second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship 1-0 in an ill-tempered game that saw players from both sides sent off.
But Vancouver, on the fourth leg of a five-game road trip, came into the game with a 20-point bulge over Toronto in the standings.
The first half started slowly with neither team showing much finesse in the final third of the pitch. Fans behind or to the side of the goal seemed in more danger from shots than either 'keeper.
Vancouver did not manage a shot on target in the first half although Brazilian Camilo had a couple of chances, sending a header from a corner over the bar and later driving a ball across the goal.
But as the first half wore down, Silva began to make his presence felt and the home side came close.
A long Silva pass to Ryan Johnson in the 41st minute bounced off defender Martin Bonjour and found the Jamaican international with a clear path on goal. But Cannon came out and made the save with his body.
Seconds later, Cannon was up to the challenge again, this time palming away a Julian de Guzman shot.
Johnson, found behind the defence again via a beautifully flighted Silva pass, seemed destined to score in stoppage time but — with Cannon beaten — his shot bounced off the right post.
For the hard-working Johnson, who has played every minute this season but only has three goals, it was yet another instance where he deserved better.
Toronto fullback Jeremy Hall exited in the 28th minute with a tight hamstring.