Toronto FC earned a hard-fought road point on Saturday night with a 2-2 draw at Real Salt Lake.
Justin Meram put the hosts in front after seven minutes when he cut in-field from the left and ripped a shot to the top left-corner of goal, but Kosi Thompson replied immediately, guiding a Jacob Shaffelburg cross in at the back-post after a blistering run up the left.
Damir Kreilach would reinstate the lead before half-time, controlling a ball from Maikel Chang with his chest before finishing. Never a good time to concede, Toronto would regroup at half-time, make a tactical change and with fresh legs in the second half snagged another equalizer in the 79th minute with a stunner from Jayden Nelson.
The 19-year-old spotted a vulnerability when the Salt Lake keeper Zac MacMath played an outlet ball to Kreilach. Nelson pounced, forced a turnover, and hit a sweet right-footer that sailed into the unguarded net from long range.
A red card to Carlos Salcedo would see TFC need to dig deep to see out the draw, but see it out they did.
“It's a very good point,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “This is a very difficult place to play. It's really hard to get control of the game; for the game to have a real rhythm it's a real challenge.”
“Overall our football in the first half wasn't very good. We make some mistakes and we go down early,” he recapped. “Very good response and then really bad to give up the goal right before half. One change at half, we switched and played four in the back, we felt that we could get a little more going forward.”
“The big plus on the night is the guys that come on the field: Deandre [Kerr] comes on plays quite well and then Jayden comes on and really does a great job to win the ball and catch the keeper for the second goal. And I mentioned the response of the first goal, great run by Jacob and a great ball and then a fantastic finish by Kosi.”
As soon as Thompson saw Shaffelburg burst up the touch-line he knew what he had to do.
“Honestly from the beginning of Shaff’s run, I know that he's going to go straight to the byline. He did incredible to get past a couple of guys and I knew that I had to get on my horse and get into the box,” he recounted. “Once I saw him take it to the byline, I know it's going to be cut back.”
“Poz is in the same position and I just screamed at him, ‘Leave it!’” Thompson continued. “And just make your connection with the ball.”
It takes confidence to tell Alejandro Pozuelo, a former MLS MVP, to leave the ball so you can score your first goal. It takes confidence to have a go from 40-plus yards.
“It's one of those that you don't really think, you just do,” replied Nelson, asked about his goal. “I couldn't tell you if the net looked big or small, I just looked up, seen the opportunity and I just hit it.”
His coach was impressed: “It’s a fantastic goal.”
“The confidence, the recognition of the moment where the keeper is out and how you can take advantage of it,” Bradley continued. “Jayden has had moments where he's gotten into the box and you think he's on the verge of either making the right pass or finishing a chance – that part has to continue to improve – maybe a goal like tonight makes a big difference in those ways.”
There were a few nervous moments as the play went under video review, but the referee was adamant there was no foul.
“I had a flashback to the U-17 World Cup when I scored against New Zealand, so I’ve kind of been through it already,” said Nelson, recalling a strike that was overturned. “I was just praying that it didn't get overruled. I had a feeling that it could have been a foul, but thank God it wasn't.”
It took Thompson just four appearances to bag his first; Nelson had to wait a little longer for his hard work to pay off.
“I knew eventually it would come, playing game after game, getting more experience. It's something that I've been working towards and something that needed to happen,” explained Nelson who had threatened regularly in his first 19 appearances before finding the breakthrough. “Just learning how to create those final attacks and making them more efficient is what I'm working on and it paid off today.”
For a pair of homegrown players to share the night was extra special.
“Oh yeah. Going through the ranks with Jay and being able to share the night with him, scoring two incredible goals, it's amazing, it's an incredible feeling,” smiled Thompson. “In the changing room I came up to him, said ‘Congrats,’ it was nothing but big smiles between us.”
Asked which of the bangers was better, Nelson replied: “I have to give it to Kosi.”
Bob Bradley’s response to what he says to a pair of 19-year-olds on the eve of their first goals spoke volumes.
“I smile and hug them and tell them that I’m proud to see the way they're coming along, I'm happy for them,” he answered. “There are times when you're pushing them and challenging them and saying, ‘Come on, it's got to be better,’ but we always want to make sure that they know that the work that we're doing is to help them, that we see the talent and that we believe in them. And when they do something good, it's a great feeling to just let them know that the work has paid off and that everybody's really excited for them and very proud.”
There has been an extra hop in the strut of the TFC youngsters this season.
“It's been a year where the young guys have been looked upon to show what they can do. And all of us know that,” said Thompson. “So everyone needs to carry a bit of a swagger. That's what the young guys are doing and need to continue to do.”
It has impacted the team, as shown in the response to twice going down in Salt Lake.
“The dedication and the hard work, the passion that we have and the trust in ourselves to know that we can come back down twice. It just shows what the group's capable of,” added Thompson. “Everyone saw how strong we are and how we can come back from 1-0 down, 2-1 down. It's a group effort. We all just believed, we all just believed.”
Next Saturday at BMO Field another stern test awaits with the visit of the high-flying Philadelphia Union, but six games into the season, unbeaten in three, things are coming along nicely.
“We feel good that the young guys are making progress. They stepped up and made a difference in tonight's game,” said Bradley. “The work to build a team. The mix of the more experienced guys, the young guys, the way they push each other. The need for the older guys to be good leaders and good examples, these are things that we speak about all the time and I’m proud to see how some of those things are developing.”