If Saturday’s game was a test, Toronto FC rose to the occasion.
The visit of the only remaining undefeated team in MLS, the team topping the standings through this early portion of the season, provided an early measuring stick for Bob Bradley’s side.
Toronto embraced that challenge, defeating the Philadelphia Union 2-1 on the night in a hard-fought contest.
Julian Carranza put the visitors in the lead in the 34th minute with a back-post header after the Union worked up the left-flank, but TFC responded five minutes later when some deft footwork from Jonathan Osorio at the top of the box saw him pick out Jesús Jiménez on the right-side of the area for lovely right-footer curler to the far-side – his fourth goal through seven matches.
Philadelphia appeared to reinstate their lead before the half-time whistle when Kai Wagner’s long-range volley from a partially cleared corner kick bulged the back of the net, but video review confirmed a player in an offside position obstructed Alex Bono’s view in goal and it was chalked off.
Given that reprieve, Toronto would emerge for the second half and grab what proved to be the game-winner through Alejandro Pozuelo in the 51st minute when Kadin Chung played in-field from the right and Pozuelo tiptoed across penalty area before stabbing a left-footer to the left-side of goal.
It wasn’t all clear sailing. Bono was called upon to be sharp, the back-line needed to stand firm, but TFC saw it out to celebrate a third-straight home win.
“Proud of the group,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “You really need to compete as a team against Philadelphia. They’re a team whose style is football forward, fight for loose balls, they run very hard, and I said we have to be up to all of those kinds of battles. We really raised the level in terms of just the way we went after the game.”
“I said we need more guys stepping up and really giving us more,” he added. “And I think that that was definitely the case tonight.”
A statement game perhaps, definitely a statement of intent.
“Yeah, it’s huge. Philly have a certain style, they have a certain way about them that always makes them tough to play. And on top of that they're on a pretty good run of form to start the season, so them coming in here we knew it was going to be a battle from start to finish, we knew that some guys were going to have to get down and do the dirty work today, and we did that,” outlined Bono. “I'm really pumped for the guys.”
“We grinded out another victory today and it's important early in the season,” he continued. “We're just trying to accumulate points, put good performances together, let the results take care of themselves, but today was a big win for us for sure.”
Heading in, Jonathan Osorio spoke about the need to develop a ‘big game mentality’.
“Before games we talk about [how] we have to have a lot of guys showing up and putting good performances together, individually and as a group,” replied Bono, asked about Osorio’s comments. “Sometimes there's just not enough good performances to really get us over the line.”
“Especially when it comes to big games, when it comes to teams that are close to the top of the table, games you know are going to be a battle, it really is a mentality thing. From the first whistle you have to know that things are going to kick off and you have to be ready to go, you have to be ready to make a play in the first 30 seconds that might make the difference in the entire game, you might have to fight through that fatigue in the 90th-plus whatever,” he expanded. “We had guys laying out, making plays all the way down the wire to the end of the game today. That's that big game mentality.”
“And the more games we can bring that to, the more success we're going to have,” Bono stressed. “It's good that we get a result like this to see what it feels like. Now we know what it takes and we’ve just got to keep putting performances together like that.”
These tests are important, especially for the younger players who haven’t necessarily been there before. For the whole team, they’re a reminder. They’re signposts along the way.
“It’s vital because you have to battle for every play and then if a play doesn't go right, you have to just continue and go with the next play,” levelled the coach. “The ability to do that and still find ways to play the football that we want.”
“There's still a lot of room for improvement in terms of just the quality of the football sometimes, our ability to be a little bit more fluid, our ability to make the right pass, the right decisions,” he continued. “But playing in these kinds of games tests you and every time we come through these games and we get a little better feel for what they're all about, that helps.”
Three times already this season TFC have fought back from conceding the first goal to salvage points. The first two were draws on the road – against FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake – but to go one further and earn the full three points at home against Philadelphia.
“We're growing as a team,” observed Bradley. “There's a belief that if we go on the field, push for 90 minutes, play the way that we can, then even if we go down a goal, it's not going to stop us from finding ways to still win.”
After two seasons where the comforts of home were a distant memory, BMO Field has been rocking in recent weeks.
“You were here, you heard it tonight, and it was awesome,” smiled Bono. “I heard the Viking clap as the clock hit 80 and I got so hyped, I was like, ‘Yeah, we're going to see out this last ten minutes no problem.’”
“The support is always great at BMO Field. They're tough at times, and they deserve to be,” he continued. “They come out in numbers every single game and they're supporting us until the end; that's all we can ask for. So to be able to be back here, three straight wins at BMO field, we're on our way.”
“We really need to make this place a fortress again and make teams not want to come here to play us,” Bono added. “And you saw today. We had warriors, we had guys who were ready for battle, and the fans really fed off of that. They love guys going in on tackles, flying in on crosses, and laying their body on line. That gets them hyped up, that gets me hyped up, and that goes a long way to helping us get over the line in a tough game where we're up against it.”
It may just be coincidence, but Saturday was the first night game at BMO Field – there’s something about those nights at BMO.
“Important win,” confirmed Pozuelo. “We know we need to be strong here at home with our people, with our fans. When we play at home, it needs to be hard for the other team to win here.”
Unbeaten in four, TFC will look to take that momentum on the road next week when they visit NYCFC, the first return meeting of the season.
“We are very happy to take the three points here, to take confidence,” added Pozuelo. “And now we go next week to New York with this confidence and we try to win again.”
As an addendum, Saturday was the 200th MLS victory of Bob Bradley’s coaching career.
“Not at all, actually,” smiled Bradley, asked if he took a moment to reflect on the milestone. “People a long time ago can tell you, when they tried to do some kind of ceremony after the 100th win, and I was totally like, ‘No chance.’”
“It's all about the team and you’ve got to stay in the moment,” he continued. “You don't become a good team by accident, you become a good team just with consistent training, consistent work every day, and then you can grow into becoming a good team. So the most important thing tonight is that I saw some of those things going in a good direction.”