Toronto FC knew going in it wasn’t going to be a pretty one.
But they found a way on Wednesday night to defeat the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium with Ayo Akinola’s first half strike enough for a 1-0 win.
The victory extends their winning streak to four matches and the current unbeaten run to six matches and with Columbus Crew SC dropping points against the Montreal Impact, TFC takes sole possession of both first place in the Eastern Conference and the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race.
As promised in the build-up, New England proved a difficult team to play against and through the first 20 minutes, Toronto were forced to make several key defensive interventions. Alex Bono came up with a strong early save, Mark Delgado tracked back to spare any defenders blushes, and Richie Laryea got his toes to a dangerous ball bound for an open man at the back-post.
Come the 29th minute, having whisked an earlier effort just wide of the far-post, Akinola found the breakthrough when he muscled Andrew Farrell off a lovely Alejandro Pozuelo ball before deftly side-footing past the Revolution goalkeeper with the outside of his right boot.
New England were displeased with the decision to let the goal stand, aggrieved by the referee’s decision to not call a foul, the intensity and physicality ticked up a notch, and the better share of half-chances continued to fall the home side’s way, but the scoreline would remain intact.
Another game-turning moment arrived in the 67th minute when Lee Nguyen used his savvy to draw a penalty, shielding the ball in the area, anticipating the contact from Delgado who reached in and went to ground.
Fate would not smile on the Revs, however, as Adam Buksa skied his effort over the bar and TFC would see out the remaining 20-plus minutes to seal the result.
It was Toronto’s first win at New England since 2013 and just the third win and eighth result all-time at Gillette Stadium in 18 matches.
“Tonight is a different kind of proud with this group,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “This is a tough place to play – it hasn't been friendly to us over the years – and this was a tough game.”
“This was a scrap it out, battle for every inch kind of a game,” he continued. “You have to protect your goal, protect your box, you're fighting for space just to move the ball and be patient, we're trying to break on the counter sometimes.”
“It's a little bit different look, but they stood strong and resilient and we created some good chances in the transition,” added Vanney. “You’ve got to win like this, especially in places like this, and I thought it was an incredible effort.”
Three valuable points and a clean-sheet to boot.
“It was a little sloppy today, but at the end of the day, it's another shutout,” said Alex Bono, starting in place of Quentin Westberg in goal. “That's a full team shutout, full team effort, and I'm really proud of the game today.”
It was a night defined by two big moments, both went Toronto’s way on the night – an indication of the small margins between victory and defeat.
The first was on Toronto’s goal and whether the contact between Akinola and Farrell should have draw a whistle. Opinions varied – New England boss Bruce Arena certainly thought it should have been – Vanney wasn’t so certain.
“Sometimes defenders underestimate Ayo’s strength,” he began. “They go to make contact with him and at times where he looks to bump on them, he surprises them with his strength.”
“I didn't think it was a foul,” Vanney continued. “Their guy tries to step in front, was trying to go shoulder-to-shoulder on it. It looked like he then fumbled over the ball a touch, which leaves [it] there for Ayo and then he took it with composure and put it in the back of the net like he should.”
“When I watched it back on the replay I thought it was a good goal,” he added. “If it was my defender I probably would have maybe seen it a little bit the other way, just because of the bias, but honestly I thought it was two guys going into a challenge and a 50-50 ball to try to recover it.”
“Farrell got himself into a little bit of a precarious situation,” Vanney concluded. “When you get into those situations and you play man-on-man all over the field and you expose yourself, you put yourself in those types of situations and sometimes they go your way and sometimes they don't. Tonight, it went our way.”
Akinola himself has noted that opponents often underestimate his strength.
The 20-year-old striker made his fourth-straight start on the night. Goals in the last two and three in his last five appearances have extended his tally on the season to eight in 11 matches.
It could have been more, but his contributions are not limited to just finding the back of the net.
“Ayo, when he came off, he said, ‘I should have had three,’” relayed Vanney. “But that's him being humble and being the kind of worker that we need at the top right now.”
“He was fantastic,” he added. “In the release that he was able to give us throughout the game when everybody else was working.”
The second moment was New England’s missed penalty kick attempt, where they tempted fate by making a substitution mid-process.
One of the unwritten rules is ‘never make a substitution on a set-piece’ and the Revolution paid the price for defying the soccer gods’ conventions.
It was a rarely seen move.
“No, not really,” replied Vanney, asked if he’d ever seen a sub made at such a moment. “It made the wait a little bit longer. It's the choice of anybody to make a substitution when they like. I don't know that I recall ever seeing one.”
Toronto now prepares for the third match of this five-game swing when they travel to Ohio to Face FC Cincinnati on Sunday, before returning to their base in East Hartford, Connecticut for matches against the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United FC next week.
Wednesday was also a special one for Bono, who made his 100th start for the club in all competitions, overtaking Stefan Frei for the most in club history by a goalkeeper. It was his 29th shutout as well, also a club record – Bono has not allowed a goal in his three appearances this season.
It wasn’t perfect, but it doesn’t always have to be.
“I don't do excuses when it comes to the sloppiness, the missed balls. I see crosses as a strong point in my game and the first thing I'm going to do tomorrow or the next day I'm in training is fixing crosses and get my confidence back coming for the ball,” said Bono. “I haven't played a lot, but I've taken enough in training where those really should be no problem. From that perspective I was disappointed in myself, but fortunate that it didn't come to harm the team.”
“Disappointed, but at the end of the day a zero on the board,” he continued. “It doesn't matter how they come in this league. They're not going to all be pretty, they're not going to all be where we beat teams to death and score a bunch of goals. That's just not how the league works. So for us to really go out there and pitch a zero – a little disappointed on a couple of plays – but other than that, a zero is a zero.”