Toronto FC could sell Wednesday’s wild 4-4 comeback draw with woeful D.C. United as one of those ties that feels like a win or a moral victory.
“Given the way it started, we can’t be picky about getting a point,” said TFC head coach Greg Vanney, taking the glass-is-half-full side of the argument. It was the same with defender Justin Morrow, whose second-half appearance that helped revive the attack was his first since March 3 thanks to a calf injury.
“You can take negatives and positives from this one,” Morrow said. “We can’t go down like that in the first half. But you have to take the positive – we showed character in coming back.”
But unless it really does set off a long winning streak when Major League Soccer’s World Cup break ends on June 24 for the Reds, the comeback result in front of 23,011 fans at BMO Field was just another missed opportunity. And TFC is at the stage of the schedule where those missed chances are starting to squeeze pretty hard.
With what should have been an easy game against a team that was last in the Eastern Conference, the Reds had a chance to go into the break just two points out of the sixth and last playoff spot in the east. Montreal Impact even helped out by beating Orlando City, the sixth-place team, 3-0 on Wednesday night.
But TFC showed its usual problems – a lack of finish and conceding early goals – in a horrendous first half before storming back and settling for the tie with D.C. United. That left them with a 4-7-3 record and 15 points, four behind Orlando and that last playoff spot.
Not even the bright new pitch at BMO Field, installed over the previous two weeks, could get the Reds’ legs moving at first. By the time the first half ended, with D.C. putting in another goal in injury time for a 3-0 lead, the Reds were soundly booed by the crowd.
The boos highlighted an off-field drama with the team. The Inebriatti, one of the largest fan clubs of TFC, did not appear in its customary spot in the south stands for the game, leaving a considerable swath of empty seats. This was apparently connected to some dispute with the team, although TFC officials were not able to say what it was.
One banner in the south stands appeared to reference the dispute as it read “Football without ultras is nothing.” Ultras in this case means ultra-fanatic supporters.
There was actually a sign of optimism before the game started, as defender Eriq Zaveleta returned to the TFC lineup for the first time in a month. He was out with a quadriceps injury along with most of the starters on the back line. Still out were Chris Mavinga (hamstring) and Drew Moor (quadriceps), which once again left the back line weakened and midfielder Michael Bradley playing out of position in a defensive role.
The first half followed the usual pattern for TFC, as they were unable to finish a few good scoring chances early and then once again allowed early goals to find themselves chasing the game once again.
Yamil Asad, Paul Arriola and Darren Mattocks scored for D.C., as the visitors strolled through the Reds defenders at will.
The Reds’ renaissance in the second half started when Vanney pulled the struggling defender Eriq Zavaleta, starting for the first time in a month due to injury, and sent in striker Tosaint Ricketts. The offence was given another boost when Morrow entered the game in the 57th minute.
By that time, TFC finally managed a goal when midfielder Jonathan Osorio, enjoying a career season, scored in the 55th minute to cut D.C. United’s lead to 3-1. Then Victor Vazquez blasted home a rebound off the post in the 63rd minute to make it 3-2 and the chase was on.
The crowd was back behind its team and exploded in the 86th minute when Morrow set up defender Nick Hagglund for the tying goal. But at the 90th minute the crowd was hushed when once again the TFC defenders collapsed, allowing Asad to score his second goal of the game for a 4-3 United lead.
Then, just after it was announced there would be at least six minutes of injury time, the Reds set off the crowd again when Hagglund scored his second goal to tie the score 4-4.
Given the change in TFC from the first half to the second, many reporters were wondering if Vanney lit a fire under his team by giving them a tongue-lashing during the intermission. No, he said, he took a different approach along with making adjustments, especially with Hagglund, that paid off.
“For me, today wasn’t a day where I felt like they need a bollocking or yelling at or anything like that,” Vanney said. “I felt like they needed a clear plan, a little push to believe they could do this.
“We’ve done this before. We needed to be confident, be aggressive, play without fear. To go for it. Between pushing them in that way and readjust our group in a way we could be more aggressive on the attack but still cover ourselves in a reasonable way, I felt that was the solution for us.”
Aside from sending in Ricketts and Morrow to spur the attack, Vanney changed Hagglund’s role, which paid off with two goals.
“As the game progressed toward the end I asked [Hagglund] to get up high,” he said. “I didn’t think we had enough presence. Once Nick got up in the box, it was a huge reason we were able to get something out of this game.
“It was an aggressive, relentless second half we’ve come to know of this team in the last couple years.”