Without three of their biggest stars, Toronto FC travelled to red-hot D.C. United on Wednesday night, losing 1-0 on a stunning Wayne Rooney free-kick.
TFC nearly took the lead, but Bill Hamid came up with a massive goal-line kick-save in the 11th minute, denying a Nick Hagglund header from a corner kick, opening the way for Rooney to be the difference from a dead-ball in the 18th minute.
“I was proud of our guys, they worked hard, in many ways outplayed them,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “We lacked being dangerous in the final third, but still got in some good spots, had a great opportunity on the header early in the game. The free-kick goal, it's a great strike, but it just can't go in the back of net from that distance.”
“All things considered, I was proud of the effort our guys put in and thought that the performance deserved more,” added Vanney. “But [D.C.] is a team that is finding ways to win games.”
None of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez or Jonathan Osorio were available, but Drew Moor made his return to the middle of the TFC back-line, between Eriq Zavaleta and Hagglund.
“It was good to have Drew back there,” said Vanney. “The three of them haven't played much this year together. There were a couple moments where we got pulled apart or weren't in sync, but by and large we managed their attack.”
“Between Rooney, the way him and [Luciano] Acosta combine, and [Yamil] Asad, there is a lot to deal with,” continued Vanney. “[Drew's] leadership, his presence, are always important. And he's good between those two guys, to help connect and link them. I was happy with the performance, disappointed we didn't create more chances and get more out of it.”
Moor said: “It's nice to be back. Any time you have a layoff, it's good to get 90 minutes under your belt. Disappointed with the result, but I thought there were some good things.”
“Other than all of us wearing pink boots, it was a smooth transition,” added Moor. “We know each other well, train together all the time. We got into the game quick, communicated and stayed organized; didn't give them too many clear chances. I never felt like we were under waves of attack. It was a solid defensive performance.”
And it came as a mild surprise that TFC captain, Michael Bradley, was in the starting XI less than 24 hours after coming on as a substitute for the U.S. in a friendly against Peru.
“I was excited to play; I love to play,” said Bradley. “When you peel away all the [BS], trophies, wins, losses, ups, down. When you take all that away, I do this because I love the game, I love to play. Given that I only played a few minutes last night, it seemed like a given that I was going to get here this morning and be ready to go.”
Bradley made the trip from Connecticut to Washington, D.C.; it would take far more than distance to keep him away.
“He's all in, all the time; that's the way he does things,” said Vanney. “Whether that is during the training week or every match. He's always in for the battle, for the long haul. There's never a question of that with Michael. He was important tonight, helped us control this game.”
Alongside the returning veterans, Bradley and Moor, there were a handful of youthful faces: Liam Fraser, Jon Bakero, and Jordan Hamilton all got starts, while Ayo Akinola saw minutes off the bench. As did Ashtone Morgan and Jay Chapman, themselves unused substitutes in Canada's win on Tuesday over Dominica in Concacaf Nations League qualifying.
“Liam was very solid,” said Vanney of 20-year-old Fraser. “He and Michael working together was nice to see. They haven't played a whole lot together, it was good for Liam to play next to somebody. That's important for him. He shows his composure on the ball, ability to spray the ball around the field; his willingness to compete, challenge, and tackle. He did well.”
Of 21-year-old Bakero, who arrived from the Chicago Fire midseason, Vanney said: “Jon held his own. He held up the ball, linked some plays together.”
“He's a bright kid on the field, understands tactically things that need to happen and he recognizes situations. He's very aware. He did a nice job,” continued Vanney. “We need him in the end to be more dangerous in that higher position, whether that be him or helping us to create.”
“It was good to get him out there,” added Vanney of Hamilton's inclusion. “He needed to have his intensity level higher. He has more to give in terms of being a threat, a goal-scorer, and being in the box. He was a little bit mixed up: maybe that was in his role, but he's got more to his game than we saw tonight.”
With the win, D.C. extended their winning streak to four matches and their unbeaten run to eight, padding their lead for the final post-season berth in the Eastern Conference over the Montreal Impact to four points with two games left.
Toronto travels to Montreal this weekend for the derby on Sunday afternoon.
“We did a lot of good things against a team that is, right now, the hottest team in the league. By and large, from the run of play we didn't give a whole lot away at all,” said Bradley. “Our ability to connect things, put the game on our terms, was quite good.”
“Without Seba and Jozy and Victor and others, we miss a little bit of quality, a few ideas in the final play, the final part of the field,” concluded Bradley. “But every guy who stepped on the field tonight should be proud of the effort. Now we recover and get ready to do it again on Sunday in Montreal.”