Familiar does not always imply welcome.
Toronto FC earned a hard-fought point on Saturday night when they visited Audi Field, drawing 1-1 with D.C. United.
Nick DeLeon, on his return to his old stomping grounds, swept in the Toronto goal in the 19th minute after some excellent work up the right-side from Richie Laryea, who twisted his way into the area before picking out his teammate with a low ball through the goalmouth.
On the verge of seeing out the 1-0 win that Greg Vanney and his side so desperately desired, it was determined at the cusp of the 90, with the aid of VAR once more, that Ayo Akinola had impeded Frederic Brillant on a corner kick – never mind that Akinola himself had been felled in the opposing area minutes earlier, a play not deemed worthy of review, nor that an uncalled foul on Laryea led to the initial spell of pressure.
Wayne Rooney stepped to the spot in the 92nd minute and calmly beat Quentin Westberg to level. It was the fifth penalty kick awarded to Toronto's opposition in the last five matches.
“The first thing I said to my guys: 'What an incredible effort', relayed Vanney post-match. “To come here, battle like that and work together as a group to defend. They deserved a shutout, should have got the shutout, and I’m very proud of them.”
“We're on a good run, in terms of our effort, our energy, and the way we’re performing,” continued Vanney. “I’m very pleased with them. They should have had three points tonight.”
Added Laryea, who has flourished in the full-back position: “We played very, very well. Everything – attacking, defensively – we were very good. An organized performance for an away game. It’s unfortunate once again this VAR and whatnot is holding us back from today three points, on other days a point.”
DeLeon spent seven seasons with D.C., he refused to let the late penalty kick detract from the performance.
“We were a good, collective unit today: defended well, did pretty good taking care of the ball as well,” said DeLeon. “Just a little unfortunate with the VAR again, but overall I think the guys are proud of the result, proud of the effort, just not, obviously, the result. That close, a couple of minutes, from taking three points.”
And he relished the goal, his fourth of the season.
“The goal was nice. I was definitely highly-motivated for this game. When I first got traded, I circled these dates on the calendar and I was really looking forward to playing here,” explained DeLeon. “We did good. It was a good team performance; just a little unfortunate on the result.”
Ask about DeLeon's goal, Vanney took the larger view: “Nick’s performance every day is that of a man and of a professional and a guy who puts his heart and soul out there every single night.”
“It’s not going to be any different when he comes and plays against his old club. He has that much respect for D.C., and for the club here, that he’s going to give his best,” continued Vanney. “He does that every single night. I was happy he got the goal and I wish we would have taken all three points.”
Though TFC felt “robbed” on the night, there is no time to feel sorry for themselves – they face another quick turnaround as the LA Galaxy await on Thursday night. Vanney wants them to feed on this slight.
“This can't be an excuse, it has to be a motivation,” urged Vanney. “If we have to beat VAR in the process, that's what we have to do. We have to not get ourselves in these situations and we have to get the game to go back in our favour.”
“Talk about the effort, talk about the performance, talk about the grittiness of the group, leave all the rest of that behind and turn these calls and plays into our favour and not against us. That's on us to do that. That's the message,” continued Vanney. “We can be disappointed, we can be angry, but it has to be motivation, it can't be excuse.”
The players have taken that to heart over these last two matches, a win over Atlanta United FC at home on Wednesday and a road point away to D.C., to teams expected to figure at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“We all realized feeling sorry for ourselves wasn't going to do anything,” credited Laryea for the recent outings. “The sessions leading up to the Atlanta game were all very good, the transition into this game [too]. We're going to keep riding from here on out.”
Toronto has lost once in their last five matches, but this three-match road spell continues in LA this week and away to the Montreal Impact on July 13 before a run of three at home that closes the month.
“The guys are working really hard,” observed Vanney. “Not everything is perfect, not everything is clear – we’d like to have had more possession at times, but when we did turn it over, we immediately got together in our block and defended hard. Guys do a little extra running, do a little extra work, and they compete just that little extra.”
Added DeLeon: “We're more on the same page.”
“It was a good result Wednesday,” he continued. “To come on a short turnaround in a difficult environment, get a point which could have been three, the play is definitely starting to move in our direction. We've just got to keep grinding, keep going, stay together and the results will come.”