There’s no better way to fan the fires for the long season ahead than by suffering a bit of heartbreak at the beginning.
Toronto FC added another coal to the pile on Saturday night in their season opener, a 2-2 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes at Earthquakes Stadium.
Alejandro Pozuelo put the side in front in the 40th minute when he converted a penalty kick after Jozy Altidore was hauled down in the box and Richie Laryea made it 2-0 six minutes after the restart tapping in the rebound from a Tsubasa Endoh shot.
But Matias Almeyda’s tenacious side would not go down easily.
Andy Rios pulled one back immediately, redirecting a Cristian Espinoa cross in the 53rd minute after a cross-field ball from Oswaldo Alanis by-passed the TFC defenses. And Alanis himself, who joined the Earthquakes in the offseason, found the equalizer deep in stoppage-time, ripping a free-kick from a tight-angle into the far side-netting come the last kick of the game in the 95th minute.
Welcome to MLS.
“I’ll be honest, San Jose is a tough team to play in your first game,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “The uniqueness of the style means you have to outwork them individually, around the field. For a lot of the game, we did.”
“Towards the end, first game of the season, you start to wear down a bit, we had to defend. We gave too many balls away in some of our set possessions that would’ve helped control the game and by giving them away, we had to work. We were putting in a shift, really having to dig deep to see the game out,” he continued. “We were right there. It came down to one play in the end.”
“In terms of getting back into the season, I’m really proud of these guys. The mentality is strong,” Vanney added. “That’s 11 games regular season unbeaten – that’s something we’re trying to keep going – we’re just disappointed we didn’t get three points.”
It wasn’t a pretty game. These early ones seldom are, but San Jose’s unique style added to the chaos. Things got physical too with six names added to the referee’s book.
“How many San Jose games don’t look sloppy? It’s the way they play,” explained Vanney. “They man-on-man chase you around the field, it sets up for a sloppy game. A lot of things are dealt with in transition, set-pieces, things like that.”
“Especially when it’s the first game of the season, teams are not in full form or as sharp as they like to be, San Jose’s style mucks up the game a little bit and makes it difficult. You have to be really disciplined; you have to be really good with the ball, it just makes for a really awkward game,” he concluded. “That’s their style and it works for them. Teams that come in here have to deal with that.”
Playing in San Jose has rarely been kind to TFC, especially at their new ground. San Jose are unbeaten in five matches at home against Toronto; they have never lost at Earthquakes Stadium to the Reds.
“It’s a tough place to come,” said Jozy Altidore. “They came a little bit more into the game and our legs started to get away from us a bit, but you have to be proud. Proud of the fight, the effort. A tough place to come, they play a weird style, and so, for us to take a point back to Toronto, we’re happy to take that, it’s a positive and we’re looking forward to our home opener.”
Pozuelo’s penalty kick conversion opened his account for the 2020 campaign and was his seventh in eight attempts from 12 paces since joining the club last season. Laryea’s goal was his second in MLS – both have come against the Earthquakes.
The game turned as soon as play was restarted in the 52nd minute.
“A lot of negative words to finish a game like this,” began Quentin Westberg. “It was hard throughout the second half. Once we scored that second goal we were on the back foot.”
“They had the crowd, they had a little bit of everything,” he continued. “It was frustrating overall to take such a free-kick in the last second and to come back with only a point when we fought well and did what needed to be done to get out of here with three.”
Frustrated, but undaunted.
“Not disappointed in our performance. Our effort was incredible,” highlighted Vanney. “Just disappointed for the group because in the end you want to take those three points. But from it, we build.”
A point away from home, against the opposite conference, on the first day of the season is never a bad thing.
“We wanted to get the season started with a good result. It’s not a bad result to be on the road and get a draw against a tough team,” balanced Vanney. “It was so close to being three points that we wanted the three points out of it, especially given the effort, the fight, the grit that the guys put there.”
A little more fuel for the fires.
“Positive steps,” summarized Laryea. “We didn’t lose the game, we showed a lot of good things. It’s only the first game, so there’s a lot of improvement to happen. A positive result for us.”
“It’s good,” he added. “A lot of guys are angry, that shows the determination of the group this year.”
Toronto returns home to prepare for game two of the 2020 season this Saturday when NYCFC come to BMO Field.
With the New York-side expected to be one of the top sides in the East and eager to make amends for their Conference Semifinal defeat in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, it should be a good one.
Said Altidore: “We’re looking forward to getting in front of our fans and getting three points.”