TORONTO—Toronto FC’s star-studded squad is understandably not the finished product after two games, but it is showing a winning belief and an ability to close out games. For the first time in its eight-year history, the Reds are 2–0 to start a season.
In their home opener, TFC played in their alternative kit—a slick new all-dark grey kit with red trim as if to say this year is truly different. The Reds edged visiting D.C. United 1–0 on a 60th-minute goal from Jermain Defoe.
It was a professional performance by TFC, one that they could have won by a larger margin, but for some good saves by DCU keeper Bill Hamid and some bad luck.
The game was played on a bumpy grass surface at the end of a long brutal winter in Toronto. It was windy and far from ideal conditions for soccer. But it’s the same pitch for both sides and Toronto FC managed to grind one out for its boisterous fans.
“Wee bit of an awkward game for us,” Toronto FC head coach manager Ryan Nelsen said in his post-match press conference. Adding to the trickiness was the elevated expectations for his team now, the difficult conditions under which the match was played, and playing against the team that finished dead last in MLS last season.
“We could have been 2–0 or 3–0 up after the first 45 and it could’ve been game over,” Nelsen said commenting that TFC battled through a stiff wind in the first half. “I don’t think D.C. broke us down often at all.”
Toronto FC was in firm control of the match, but had failed to make the most of their chances in the first half. It was a question of a superior team continuing to believe in themselves, fighting through less-fancied opposition, and the elements.
On the hour mark, TFC took the lead—through who else, but Defoe. At the origin of the goal was the excellent Michael Bradley who made a clever pass to release Gilberto. The Brazilian’s hard shot was saved by Hamid, but Defoe was quickest to the rebound and found the open net.
The difference in TFC this year was also in evidence with the attendance—a sellout of 22,591 despite a game-time temperature of 36F and transit system delays due to construction.
Nelsen described the atmosphere as “better than a lot of the atmospheres in Europe.”
With the massive expectations on TFC, the questions naturally gravitate to how far away the Reds are from realizing their potential even if the season’s only two games old.
“I don’t think we’re a top team right now,” Nelsen said. “We’re still new.”
Nelsen described the new partnerships that are being formed such as the strike duo of Defoe and Gilberto, Bradley and Jonathan Osorio in central midfield, as well as partnerships on both flanks.
“We’re trying to get a feel for each other, trying to set the tone for the team in there,” Bradley said about his nascent partnership with Osorio.
“Games are won in the center of the midfield and who can impose themselves on the other team, who can win the battles in there,” Bradley said. “The overall picture is really good.”
Bradley’s tireless work rate in central midfield makes him a dominant player on the pitch. He not only makes it difficult for the opposing midfield, but also has a creative side as shown leading up to Defoe’s game-winner.
Bradley provided the game’s humorous and scary moments too. In the first half, he steamrolled referee Silviu Petrescu as he was competing for the ball. Naturally, the Toronto fans cheered loudly.
But he also clashed heads with Davy Arnaud and had to get numerous staples in his head to close an open gash. Arnaud had to leave the game, but Bradley soldiered on.
“We’re still learning about Michael [Bradley] and he’s still learning about us,” Nelsen said about his midfield general. Nelsen commented that with the new additions, “there’s a bit of a hardness to us.”
That hardness is shown in Toronto FC hanging on to one-goal leads whereas in past seasons, they were well known for capitulating.
Nelsen also added, “We looked solid and we’re finding ways to win.” This last bit is a hallmark of a good team.
“We got a win and hopefully they [the fans] got a taste for what will come for us this season,” Nelsen said.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports