Toronto FC played their first match on U.S. soil in nearly two months on Saturday night, forced to settle for a 2-2 draw with D.C. United at Audi Field.
Ola Kamara opened the scoring after five minutes when he blocked a pass out of the TFC back-line to break in on goal, but Alejandro Pozuelo levelled twelve minutes later with a simple finish from just below the penalty spot after Richie Laryea’s ball into the box was not dealt with by the D.C. defence.
Ayo Akinola, who came on at half-time for Jozy Altidore, scored his sixth goal of the season to put Toronto ahead on the hour-mark, only for 17-year-old Griffin Yow to find the equalizer late.
Different, but still eerily reminiscent of the 2-2 draw the two sides played out in July at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
“The first half was very random,” assessed Greg Vanney post-match. “We didn't have much shape and as we're running all over the place, trying to find the ball, trying to create things and leaving spaces open, we become vulnerable in the defensive transition and we don't control the game like we would normally.”
“It wasn't anything overly-sophisticated or challenging about what they did – it was a pretty straight up 4-4-2 – but we have to be more disciplined about the areas of the field that we have players in and we need our players to be in the right positions at the right times,” he continued. “We were very busy. That left us vulnerable, cost us a lot of energy because we end up running at times we don't need to run, we end up getting exposed and we have to sprint to recover. It becomes incredibly inefficient. And we're on the road at the start of a tough road trip and we burn a lot of energy for not a lot of gain in the first half.”
Just five minutes in, D.C. and Kamara were on the board.
“We give away an absolute howler, which is never the way you want to start a game. Then we come out in the second half, a little more structured, switch some things around, and a little bit better for the first 25-to-30 minutes – better shape and with the ball more purposeful,” Vanney detailed. “Created a few more chances, got in deeper into their half, but we started to fatigue.”
“These games are a bit of a war of attrition, between travel and injuries and guys carrying things. These games come back-to-back-to-back so you're trying to push guys through – [D.C.] are having the same issues,” he noted. “We're thin in the midfield right now and trying to work our way through it. The second goal comes off of our midfield physically struggling a little bit, so we went with a third centre-back, thinking that if at least we can force them to put crosses in we'll have numbers in front of the goal to protect the middle of the field.”
“Sure enough they put a cross in. [Quentin Westberg] comes to get it, calls for it. Omar [Gonzalez] stays in and heads it – either Q's got to get it and Omar's got a clear space for him or Omar's got to make sure that he clears it,” Vanney stressed. “Neither happens and so we head it back down and their guy just smacks it into what's a relatively empty net.”
Goals gifted to the opponent.
“We have this sense right now that we have to win every single ball and every single pass and so our defensive shape is, at times, very impatient,” Vanney said. “And because of that we expend a lot of energy chasing balls.”
“We just need to be more patient sometimes,” he added. “We can't press everything and tonight, because we start off playing from behind, our patience wanes a little bit and we're pushing the game a little bit too much.”
Conversely, the best moments were free-flowing, especially when Richie Laryea, who was again sensational, was involved.
It was his ball into the area that forced an error resulting in Pozuelo’s goal and his cross that ultimately led to Akinola’s header. Laryea nearly capped off a spectacular mazey run with another goal, but Nick DeLeon’s shot was always rising over the bar.
Akinola thought the cross was overhit.
“I thought he missed everyone – I didn’t know who he was trying to play to – but Pablo [Piatti] was there,” said the striker. “At first I thought he was going to take a touch, but he put it back first time right onto my head.”
“As I headed it, for a split second I thought [Bill] Hamid was going to save it, but then it just passed by him,” continued Akinola, recalling the fingertips that denied him a hat-trick in July. “The celebration? I don't know. I didn't know where I wanted to go. I saw [Jonathan] Oso[rio] nearby, so I just tried to give him a hug.”
Acclimating to the latest phase of the season is going to have its challenges. A hard-fought point on the road, even if it came from a winning position, isn’t a bad way to start.
From a regular start to the long pause, to the bubble in Florida, to the all-Canadian portion, and now back on the road and a new home-away-from-home.
The players know what they are up against.
“Every game now feels like it’s going to be away,” said Akinola. “[People] are going to think that because we’re away, we’re going to be the underdogs, but we have that mindset that, every game, we play like it’s our last. And we feel like we're the home team, how we move the ball and how we possess it.”
“It definitely feels weird, but nothing is surprising to us, especially after [the] Orlando [tournament], how the games went by and we were away from home for a very long time,” he likened. “This is like an Orlando Part Two for us. Definitely weird, but we should be okay with that.”
Auro and Liam Fraser were not in the gameday roster, Chris Mavinga was absent from the starting eleven as a precaution and captain Michael Bradley is still recovering. This congested stretch of action isn’t always going to be pretty.
It’ll be about taking points where one can, while mitigating risk with the bigger picture in mind.
TFC plays NYCFC on Wednesday and then faces another quick turnaround when Columbus Crew SC meet them in East Hartford, Connecticut for the first match at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
The draw against D.C. may have been a preview of how the rest of the regular season will look.
“[There’s a] good chance,” said Vanney. “When you play every three, four days on a consistent basis and you add in travel, every time you come out of one of those blocks you lick your wounds and you figure out who needs some recovery, who's in a good spot, and who you can move forward with.”
“That's the way the season is. The teams that are in decent positions have some decisions to make in terms of what's more important: the points or risking players,” he continued. “And the teams that are in bad positions may look at that differently: they may be willing to risk missing players to try to grab points.”
“That's the position we were in in 2018 and it cost us a lot of guys and, in the end, cost us a lot of points. Now we're in a good position, we're not risking players for points,” Vanney stated. “We're going to put the best and the healthiest team out that we can and we're going to play.”
“We have a deep squad. We were in position to win the game tonight, even though it was a tough one, and we just didn't close it out,” he added. “That's something that we’ve got to get better at as a team.”
Akinola likes their chances of finding their path.
“That's one thing that's good about us,” he said. “After a result like this we usually bounce back.”