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Toronto FC show 'resiliency' in group stage finale against New England

Compared to the goal-filled action from the first two group stage matches, Toronto FC’s 0-0 draw against the New England Revolution on Tuesday morning was a tad more subdued.

Not that that bothered Greg Vanney one bit as the MLS is Back Tournament sorts for the knockout stages.

“We're pleased, content with the results so far,” began Vanney on the now traditional post-match Zoom conference. “I'll nitpick forever – we should have taken three in the first game. The second game, short turnaround, guys dug down. Two 9 am games and a game in 48 hours in between, so I'm really pleased with the resiliency, the battle.”

“We did some really good things [today], especially in the first half, in terms of our ball circulation and made it really difficult for them,” he continued. “I'm pleased with our performances.”

“Now our games move to night, we're getting our legs underneath us, Jozy [Altidore] is getting back into the fold, [Jonathan] Osorio should be ready for the next game, so the team continues to build,” he added. “And that's what these events are about, especially when they're coming off of four months of doing nothing.”
For the second time in eight days, TFC and their fans were up early, braced for action.

While enjoyable in some ways, in others they are brutal: 5:30 am wake-up calls, pregame meals for breakfast.

Just another obstacle to overcome.

“I'd be hard pressed to say that there's another team in the tournament that's had as difficult a schedule as we’ve had. It shows the strength and resiliency of our group, and the depth – some of our young guys coming in and helping us out,” Vanney highlighted. “We know we need to take that mindset and some of the good moments that we've had over these few games and put them into complete games and then continue to build in the process of getting better through the tournament, trying to win it.”

In sharing the points, Toronto remains atop the Group C standings – goals-scored, the third tie-breaker has them above New England also on five points. But both sides must await the result of the D.C. United-Montreal Impact match on Tuesday night before learning their fates.

A goal would have made it more clear, but Vanney wouldn’t necessarily have traded the clean-sheet for one at the other end.

“Winning the game was our priority. It's what we wanted to do, it's what we set out to do,” he said. “Getting a clean sheet was important for our group in this tournament.”

“We're confident that we can create chances, we can score goals. With Jozy coming back in the mix and Oso coming, we know our attack is going to continue to do its thing,” he continued. “Showing some resilience as a group, getting a shutout is very important, especially given we've given up some goals that were not very proud of in the first couple of games.”

“I don't know that I can ever answer that question precisely,” he mused. “But the shutout was good for our group today.”

With progression all but assured, TFC made a handful of changes to the starting eleven. Nick DeLeon came in for Tsubasa Endoh and Alex Bono replaced Quentin Westberg in goal, while Richie Laryea stayed at left-back in place of Justin Morrow.

After a fast start, the first half settled into a rhythm with TFC largely on top.

Ayo Akinola nearly continued his goal-scoring feats to crack open the deadlock in the 19th minute when he was played in on goal, but Matt Turner stayed big and patient to deny him a sixth goal of the competition.

When play resumed after halftime, it was the Revolution’s turn with the upper hand – a deflected effort after a scything run from Diego Fagundez had Bono scrambling as it drifted wide. And the game opened up around the hour mark as both teams made use of the expanded substitutions to get fresh legs on the pitch.

One of the most pivotal moments came in the 74th minute when Bono came up huge to deny Adam Buksa from close range.

POINT. BLANK! 🤯 @alex25bono

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“It was a ball that came through,” began Bono of Brandon Bye getting launched up the right-flank. “A rule of thumb that I use is if the ball is outside the frame of the goal, it’s better to hold your ground unless you know you're going to get there, so I decided to stay in.”

“[Bye] had time to dribble in and play the ball across,” he continued. “At that point you're not really sure who's there, who can get on the end of it. We work on it a lot in training: just come out and make yourself big, put a block up and hope it hits you. I was fortunate at that moment that I was able to put myself in a good position and get a block in.”

As the game entered the final ten minutes, the action became more frenetic.

Akinola was played in again by Alejandro Pozuelo, only for Turner to get a hand to his attempt. Gustavo Bou went over the outstretched leg of Michael Bradley in the Toronto box, prompting howls from the New England bench, but a wave from the referee. And then come the 87th minute, seconds after Altidore had come on the pitch, it appeared as though he and Akinola had combined to craft a potentially game-winning penalty kick. Only for VAR to rule the foul was outside the box and the call was rescinded.

Altidore’s impact was immediate.

“His first touch, the class that he has and the awareness that he has around the field,” listed Vanney. “The ability to hold up the ball, the commitment by Ayo to work to get in behind and Jozy just to slip him in it, it’s what Jozy always brings to us.”

“[He’s] more than just a target striker: he's a fantastic soccer player,” he added. “We know he can score goals; he provides us with a lot of different things.”

Akinola “definitely” thought it was a penalty at first.

“But at the same time I saw the skid marks on the grass and it was just outside,” he explained. “I had a feeling initially that they were going to give a penalty, but then after it went to VAR it was just outside the box.”

Those ten minutes provided a brief glimpse at the potential of an Altidore-Akinola strike tandem.

“Two strong guys who are going to be a handful for defenders to deal with in the moments that we use them together,” understated Vanney. “We'll see how we play it out as we move through the tournament and into the rest of the year.”

Promisingly, that spell saw Akinola get three of his better looks at goal through the 90.

“He came on late, but in a short period of time me and Jozy connected well, especially the link-up play – him coming short and me running off in behind,” reflected Akinola. “We almost had a penalty off of it. As time progresses, we'll get a better connection going on.”

That Akinola found the reserves in the sweltering mercury of a late Florida morning at the end of the game was emblematic of the team’s performance as a whole.

“We showed a lot of resilience today,” said Bono. “Obviously in the first half we were on top of the game a lot. Going into the second half we found ourselves against it a little bit.”

“We talked a lot before the game that when you get tired – it's inevitable during these games – it's important that we keep mental strength. Our group showed a ton of mental strength today, staying tuned in all the way to the final whistle, even when we were up against it at the toughest times,” he added. “I give the guys a lot of credit for staying tuned in and staying engaged throughout the whole match.”

Toronto will finish either first or second in the group and will play either July 25 against the Philadelphia Union or July 26 against a third-placed finisher.

First task accomplished. Bring on the next round.

“Nothing in this game is expected or given,” reminded Bono. “We wanted to make it to the Round of 16, we wanted to be successful this tournament and show that we are one of the teams to beat in this league.”

“We're happy to move on to the next round and these points count for the regular season as well, so it's important to set ourselves up to succeed later down the road,’ he added. “We took a lot of steps to do that in these group stage games.”

August 3, 2019.

It has been nearly a year since TFC last lost a regular season MLS match.

“That's 15-straight regular season games that we've taken points from. Our guys are really digging in on that kind of resiliency and what they've been doing across this run,” closed Vanney. “We're trying to keep that going.”