Toronto FC picked up a hard-fought point on Saturday evening, drawing 2-2 against D.C. United at Audi Field.
In sweltering summer conditions, the home side took the lead after seven minutes through Edison Flores, but Ayo Akinola drew TFC level in the 36th minute, scoring his first goal since returning from a long injury layoff.
D.C. would reinstate their advantage in the 56th minute when Michael Estrada tapped in from close range after Taxi Fountas challenged for a loose ball, which popped out and trickled towards the goal-line.
With the clock ticking down, a pair of substitutes, Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Perruzza helped manufacture a way back into the game – Osorio pouncing on the rebound from a Perruzza shot after Luca Petrasso had played the striker in down the left-side of the area.
It was an important point, putting an end to the five-game losing skid.
“This team has faced a lot of adversity in this last period,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “There has been other moments where they've shown resilience and stuck together, but then we let it get away from us. And so today means a lot to the group – that they're fighting through this and they get a little something. They needed that.”
“Football, when you're around a long time, you can go through a stretch where it just seems no matter what you do, you just can't get things turned around your way,” he continued. “And the ability to keep guys going and engaged and pushing and working hard is the challenge – that's probably the biggest challenge that you ever face as a coach – but these guys are doing a really good job of that. Today, two times coming back, we adjusted a little bit in different moments of the game, we got some reserves on the field that made a difference, so those are all positive.”
Injured in the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, Akinola’s last goal in MLS play came last season away to D.C. United. Fitting that his first back came at the same venue.
It was quite the emphatic finish.
“Jesús [Jiménez] played a wonderful pass, he just could have shot, but his unselfishness to trust in me, to play to me,” recounted Akinola. “I saw Bill Hamid come out, I could either of slid it through or chipped it, but I just wanted to bury it, just smack it. For us to be tied was really important confidence wise, knowing that we're back in the game.”
To score his first back felt “really good.”
“The fact that we were able to tie the game up near half-time gives us a bit of a breather to regroup. Personally, I'm very happy,” replied Akinola. “Now it’s just being consistent, being on a team sheet.”
For an attacking player, that feeling of hitting the back of the net, the confidence that comes with it, is immeasurable.
“Very important,” said Bradley. “It’s also a really well-taken goal. Jesús slips a really good pass and Ayo does really well with it.”
“He is a presence with speed and power that gives our attack a little bit of a different dimension. And he was smart about the way he played today,” he continued. “In the first half we switched, which got Ayo higher and playing a little bit on their last man and gave Jesús a little bit more freedom to come underneath.”
“If we can get Ayo into these kinds of positions, if we can keep pushing him along,” Bradley added. “He brings a lot of really important qualities that are going to help our attack.”
Toronto’s second goal-scorer was also marking his return to the field.
Osorio missed the last three matches, but came on in the 62nd minute and nabbed the equalizer in the 89th – it was third goal of the season.
“Oso is a good player,” began Bradley. “When he's not on the field, some of the things that we do well through the midfield are more difficult.”
“He understood the way the game was going. When he came on, we tweaked a little bit the way we played again. He's versatile, he's smart. He and Michael [Bradley] have a very good understanding,” outlined the coach. “Every team we play, tries to have a guy follow Michael because they know that the way we build often starts from the defenders going through him.”
“And Michael knows that when he's playing with Oso, that if he moves a little bit and draws his marker, Oso will see the space that's been left, find himself in a good spot, get the ball, and in those moments our ability to be a little bit more fluid is there,” Bradley continued. “There's no mistaking how important he is for our team.”
An MLS season is full of adversities of every kind.
Saturday’s kickoff was moved back two-and-a-half hours to lessen the impact of steamy conditions.
“It was hot,” said Akinola. “That's why I didn’t really celebrate. It was too hot.”
Added Bradley: “Hot and humid. When you haven't played in these conditions yet, it's even harder, but I thought the players handled it very well.”
Toronto now turns their attention to their first-ever visit to Wanderers Ground in Halifax as they brace for Voyageurs Cup action.
TFC will face HFX Wanderers FC on Tuesday night in the Canadian Championship. They do so with a hop in their step, wanting more.
“[This result can] make us go forward,” said Akinola. “It shows the resiliency that we have as a team, the mental toughness – that while we're down, that we can come back, tie the game or even win it. It can help us shift the momentum.”
Closed Bradley: “I felt great for the guys.”
“When you see these guys fight and continue on in these conditions and get that goal, what was I thinking?” he continued. “I was actually thinking maybe there's time to get one more, but still, a well-earned point.”