Another tough day at the office.
Toronto FC lost 2-1 on Saturday afternoon away to the Columbus Crew at Historic Crew Stadium in Ohio.
Luis Diaz opened the scoring in the 12th minute when he was sprung clear on goal from a TFC corner kick. Gyasi Zardes made it two for the Crew nine minutes later when he got a touch on Pedro Santos’ inviting ball into the area from the left.
Toronto would pull one back in the 52nd minute through Ayo Akinola and the return of Alejandro Pozuelo sparked a strong response in the second half, but it was not enough to earn a share of the points.
“We dug ourselves a hole,” said Chris Armas post-match. “Against good teams, it's hard to dig yourself out.”
“When you get played off the pitch, if you just get shelled with shots, then you feel one way, but when you come in and it's three or four shots and you're down 2-0, when you're trying to push and you're trying to come in with optimism and belief and you go down the way we went down – we are about to score a corner kick and it's a breakaway – that's hard, right,” he explained. “We're not going to ever get used to not winning around here.”
“We've got to keep doing what we're doing in many ways if we truly believe we're doing the right things and if the results aren't coming, we've got to stick to it,” urged Armas. “Get guys healthy, keep sticking to it. We’ve got to be better though. Early on it was set-pieces. Today it's some transition moments. It becomes hard to win games when we're giving up goals that are preventable. It's a tough stretch, but we are going to get through it. It's hard to handle right now, but that's what it is.”
Columbus began the game on the front foot, but the manner in which the opening goal came – a box-to-box dash from a Toronto attacking corner kick – was a gut-punch, setting up the second in short order with the ripples it caused.
“Columbus is dangerous. We'll look back [at the second goal]. We have some numbers there, they whip in a good ball and catch us on that one in a transition moment from a giveaway up the field,” analyzed Armas. “More strange is the first one where we have a structure set up on a set-piece, a corner kick, and it looks really promising on one level.”
“The way we defend our corner kicks is a structure at the top of the box in which three players help control transition,” he continued. “I didn't see the goal back, but it happened quickly: the ball shoots out and he gets on the run.”
“The timing wasn't great,” Armas lamented. “Just before the corner kick it looks like a big moment to score and seconds later we give up a goal. It's one we look back on and we just have to put out those fires.”
Down 2-0 at the half, Toronto emerged intent on making amends and within seven minutes had pulled one back.
Akinola began the play, laying down the right-side for Richie Laryea to attack the box. His ball into the middle was repelled, but Akinola reacted quickest, beating the Columbus defenders to the loose ball before slotting past Eloy Room in goal.
It was his first goal of the season and a well-taken one at that.
“I'm happy for him,” said Armas. “Oftentimes it's about confidence and for strikers, it's about goals. The last few weeks [I’ve seen] days where he is staying after training, working on finishing, hitting the back of the net, taking chances well, working hard in training, defending, pressing.”
“I've seen a real hunger and focus,” he continued. “Bill Manning told him yesterday he's going to score a goal. He's right, you could feel and sense that it was coming. He'll build on that. He'll come back from the break and he'll get more opportunities to put it to work.”
The return of Pozuelo, who made his 2021 debut in the 55th minute coming on for Nick DeLeon, was instrumental in the response.
“When he's on the field, he gives a lift to the team, just his presence, and then he adds the quality,” observed Armas. “He's a guy that can find spaces and facilitate the attack. He was a big part of the push we make in the second half. Helped put some guys in some good spots, relieve pressure, the whole bit.”
“It's good to have him back, it's good to see Ayo get himself on the scoreboard, and see the guys come out at half-time [and give] a big push to get a result. We obviously fell short, but we are happy to have Alejandro back.”
40-odd minutes under his belt, Pozuelo was pleased with his body’s response to the test.
“I feel very good. I worked a lot to play today,” he explained. “When I was injured, it was a bad injury. The doctor said eight-ten weeks, but I worked a lot with the physio, with ‘Chelo’ [trainer Marcelo Casal], I worked a lot to be with the team as fast as possible.”
“It was difficult to see the team on the TV,” Pozuelo continued. “The most important is I feel good after the game. I need to be physically better, but the most important is I don't feel pain.”
Saturday’s defeat closes the opening portion of the season. An eight-week stretch that included the Concacaf Champions League and the first seven matches of the MLS regular season.
With June’s international window, TFC and the rest of the league takes a breath. The Reds will return to the pitch on June 19 with a rematch against Orlando City SC.
Having looked to turn a corner with results against Columbus and NYCFC, back-to-back losses against Orlando City and the Crew have dimmed that sheen.
Injuries and absences have continued to weigh on the side, errors have proved costly putting results just beyond reach. It’s been a difficult stretch.
But now the team has three weeks to regroup and respond.
“We feel good,” replied Pozuelo, asked of the feeling inside the group. “A lot of difficult situations, like when we were in Toronto with the quarantine, to come back to Orlando and playing away from home. A lot of bad situations, a lot of injured players, this is the situation.”
“But now we have three weeks to recover and we need to keep going,” he continued. “This is the mentality. We want this coach because he has a good mentality and a good personality. I like the style he plays. He wants to play, press higher, he wants to take the ball. All the players want him.”
When MLS play resumes TFC face more fixture congestion – three matches in a week and two in four days – before the Gold Cup break in July. After that begins the annual summer grind where Toronto will play ten matches between July 17 and August 27 ahead of another international break at the start of September.
While some report for international duty, the rest, as well as the coaching staff, will use this time well.
“It will be a time that we all use, myself included, for a few days to see my family,” said Armas. “It will be important for everyone to take a step back for just a couple of days, which isn't always easy when you're sitting on some results that don't go our way, but that's part of it.”
“The players will get some days to see their families. Some of them will stay in Orlando and do some different things out of there. The extended staff, same situation,” he continued. “Take a step back, reset things, recharge the batteries, and all of us come back with a vengeance.”
“No one is happy with a 1-4-2 start. There are some points we leave out there, but, on the inside, things are strong,” Armas stressed. “Inside of these walls things are getting stronger. Things haven't been easy for this group, but we are going to come back and reload.”