For the first 83 minutes or so, everything went more-or-less to plan.
Toronto FC kicked off their MLS is Back Tournament on Monday morning, drawing 2-2 with D.C. United after the match was finally played, having been rescheduled twice: first because of Toronto’s delayed arrival and then out of an abundance of caution, allowing for the retesting of inconclusive results.
Ayo Akinola scored both goals for TFC – a curler from the top of the box in the 12th minute and a close range tap in in the next-to-last minute of the first half from an Alejandro Pozuelo set-up.
But just as it seemed the match would end quietly, D.C. scored twice in the waning moments – Federico Higuain clipping a tidy finish on a break in the 84th minute and Frederic Brillant getting on the end of the textbook long-range Felipe free-kick, which was headed square to his teammate by Steve Birnbaum in the first minute of stoppage-time.
“Disappointing,” was how Michael Bradley summed up the result.
“We had things completely under control for big parts of the game,” continued the TFC captain. “But it shows that if you drop your guard just a little bit, if you start to take the foot off the gas a little bit, if you think the game is over before it actually is, then, especially on days like this where it's hot, humid and nobody is at their best or their sharpest yet, you let a team back into the game.”
“It's disappointing, frustrating, but there's still a lot of positives to take from the first 60-70 minutes,” he noted. “We're still playing our way back into form after a long layoff and so we'll have to look closely at some things over the next few days, understand what was good and be honest with ourselves about what needed to be better, especially towards the end of the game.”
Having been dominant in the first half, Greg Vanney saw the effects of both the conditions in Florida, a series of precautionary substitutions – Justin Morrow, Omar Gonzalez, and Chris Mavinga, specifically – as the primary culprits for the turning of the tides. That the equalizer came from a set-piece was particularly galling.
“We needed to continue to attack and look for the third goal,” he stressed. “Not just pass the ball around, but really look for our moments to put them on their heels and force them to have to defend their goal, not just be in relatively comfortable defensive positioning.”
“Part of this is us learning as a group, being more diligent managing the temperature,” continued Vanney. “But we were in position to win the game – we should have won the game – we collapsed.”
“The last one is defending a set-piece.... We knew that if we give them anything in our half of the field, they're just going to dump it into the box and look for first and second balls. Both centre-backs that they have are very good in the air and sure enough that was it,” vented the coach. “We're a mature team and should have closed things off. Some guys weren't really in sync when they came in and some poor play in terms of starting attacks and then some poor play on the defending side.”
The first hour-plus of the match was the game-plan verbatim.
“The first half went how we would want it to, how it drew up,” said Vanney. “We talked a lot about managing the weather, being good in possession, positional discipline, the ball moving quickly, and making sure we were staying organized behind attacks so that when the opposition tried to get out we could suffocate them and recover the ball and play again.”
“We created a few more chances – Ayo probably wishes he had one or two more on the day,” ribbed Vanney. “A lot of things were working for us. The way the mind works – it's really hot, we're up a man – our foot came off the gas just a little bit and then we started to get a little sloppy. And that allowed them to hang around. That's how the second half went.”
The draw extends Toronto’s current unbeaten run in ‘regular season’ matches – if this can be considered as such given that the points will factor into the standings – and answered some of the questions looming at the start of the season.
Bradley, playing his first match since an ankle injury in last year’s MLS Cup Final, was immense.
“Michael looked fresh, he was in great spots, he allowed the machine that is the team to work around him and he constantly balanced us off and kept things going and connected people the way we've always seen from him,” assessed Vanney. “He's done a ton of work to get himself healthy and get himself fit. A lot of that we saw today on the field, which was which was was nice.”
“Now the question is: let's see how he responds after the game today and how quickly he'll be ready to turn around,” he added. “In my mind he'll be fine – I know he'll want to be fine – but we'll just want to make sure that's the case.”
And the latest addition to the squad, Pablo Piatti, made his long awaited debut. Lining up on the right side of the attacking three with Akinola and Tsubasa Endoh.
“He had a really solid day,” observed Vanney. “We initially brought him in because he had played a lot on the left side, through this preseason process we have found that he's more comfortable – and we have a really good relationship/partnership between Auro, Pozuelo, and Pablo – on the right side.”
“They look really comfortable, really fluid together, really nice, different movements and their reading of each other,” he continued. “He's now been able to really settle in, be comfortable, understand how we play as a team, his relationships with his teammates are have gotten better, and all that translates into performance and into good moments. He's going to continue to improve as he continues to settle in and we'll continue to see moments where he's going to be goal-dangerous and he's going to create more system goals and all those kinds of things.”
Piatti’s best look at target came perhaps a little too early – following some excellent build-up play from Pozuelo and Akinola in the sixth minute – and he dragged his low left-footer wide of the target. But it was the interplay between Piatti, Pozuelo, and Auro that dazzled for stretches.
“Pablo has shown, in the last few weeks as we've ramped up training and started to get closer to real games, that he has real quality,” described Bradley. “He has a good mentality, he works, he can, obviously, attack and dribble by guys.”
“Early on we were trying to figure out the best way to use him. Lately, he's found a really good way to combine with Auro, with Pozuelo, on the right-hand side. The three of them have a really good understanding and you saw some of that today,” Bradley continued. “As he and we all get fitter and sharper, you'll see more and more of that.”
Toronto now turn their focus to their second game of the competition: a match against the Montreal Impact on Thursday night.
With the New England Revolution having taken the full three points from Montreal in their meeting, this second group stage game sets up nicely. Tournament play hits a little different.
“If you want to be one of the teams still playing at the end, then you grow into the tournament, you improve with every game,” stressed Bradley. “Nobody is at their best at the beginning.”
“We're disappointed that we didn't take all three points today, but we all know that you always have to take something from the first game. We did that,” he added. “We'll recover mentally and physically over the next few days and we'll get ready for the second game and look to be even better.”
The lack of lead time may be a blessing.
“Everybody knows that we're in a quick turnaround,” replied Vanney when asked if it was a concern. “You get off the field a little frustrated and a quick turnaround to get back on the field is going to be a good thing.”
“We’ll regroup, we'll get recovered, guys need to get hydrated, see where we're at physically,” he listed. “And then we'll start to reset a game plan for Montreal.”