Despite a curiously weak starting lineup, and a first half as uninspiring as the crowd everywhere beyond the South East corner, things were finally looking good. Joao Plata had come on for the woeful Gianluca Zavarise (though I wouldn't wish injury on any TFC player, to whomever on Real Esteli caused his injury, Gracias, estas el jugador mas valuable) and turned the game around. He brought an attacking intent that was previously missing and scored twice, Toronto FC were winning 2-0 and looking very untroubled by Real Esteli, and I was fairly secure that even if we didn't score again, a 2-0 lead would be good enough to ensure a relaxed game in Nicaragua next Tuesday. Then Milos Kocic did that.
Richard Eckersley who had a great second half, had done well to snuff out a possible Real Esteli attack and safely shepherd the ball back to Milos Kocic, playing his first game of the season. Kocic moved down to smother the ball, and I looked away, satisfied with a job well done and awaiting the clearance. Some alarming crowd noise caused me to look back a couple of seconds later to see a Real Esteli player rolling the ball into an emty net. Turns out Kocic managed to roll over the ball and let it squirm out from under him, thus presenting it on a plate to the Real player. Thus a relatively comfortable lead was needlessly turned into a narrow, easily overturned advantage, next Tuesday will be genuinely nervy, and a win, an honest to goodness TFC win, the first in almost a month, ended with a very deflated feeling.
It hadn't been a great showing by TFC, but 2-0 was probably what they deserved out of this game. The starting lineup was a bit surprising, with Kocic being joined by Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan and Matt Stinson. There was no place for Eddy Viator, Mikael Yourassowsky, or despite all the pre game talk, Terry Dunfield or Julian de Guzman who did at least make a second half substitute appearance. Maicon Santos had to stay on Aron Winter's naughty spot and didn't even make the bench, Winter confirming after the game that that decision was due to his unhappiness with his play the previous game. Ryan Johnson took the attacking midfielder spot from Santos, and had a fantastic game, working well with the forwards and getting into the box to consistently meet crosses, forcing three good saves from the Real goalie. That's his third straight impressive performance since he got here, and he's looking like a fantastic pick up. Another good pick up of course is Torsten Frings. In the absence of Santos and Frei, he was made captain, and there's really no reason why that shouldn't become permanent after another top performance from him.
Overall though the first half was unimpressive. Toronto looked much more comfortable at the back, Andy Iro and the young kids enjoying the time that they were given by a very deep lying Real team and passing the ball around nicely in a way we haven't seen in a while. MLS teams know enough to pressure TFC high up the pitch and it causes a lot of problems, but they had a lot more time today so could patiently build attacks, and that led to a remarkable 73% possession over the 90 minutes. It all fell apart a bit though whenever they got too close to Real's defensive lines as they struggled to penetrate. Almost all the attacks were funneled down the wings, leading to many many crosses into the box. It wasn't a terrible tactic as Real's defenders were all a lot smaller than Danny Koevermans and Johnson, so there were plenty of headers won, though few of them were actually on target, but there was no variety, very little spark and all in all Real looked quite comfortable.
Something needed to change in the second half, but no half time subs were made, but then Gianluca Zavarise who'd had a horribly passive game at Left Wing left the game injured, replaced by Joao Plata and he immediately sparked the offence. Whereas before all the wing play had been focussed on staying on the outside, Plata immediately was cutting inside and attacking the full back, doing something different and instantly becoming TFC's most dangerous player. He scored from close in early in the second half, and added a second from a great free kick about 25 yards out, he almost got a third in injury time, and overall it was his most impressive performance since early May when he burst onto the MLS scene with great games against Houston and Chicago.
Plata's impact really should be the story of the game, and TFC fans should be breathing a sigh of relief at a job well done and looking forward to a stress free return leg. Now, with just a one goal difference and an away goal in the bag, a poor Real Esteli team will fancy their chances of pulling off the upset. I feel bad for Kocic, he seemed genuinely sorry for letting everyone down and I imagine he feels worse than anyone right now, but there's really no excuse (a bizarre excuse about wet grass suddenly becoming dry grass was offered in his post game interview). Yes he hadn't played in the first team all year, yes he'd had pretty much nothing to do all night, but that's a routine play he just has to pull off. So much of goalkeeping is mental, including staying sharp and ready when almost all the play's at the other end, and he just didn't do that. The next time the ball came to him and he succesfully controlled and cleared the ball, I and a few others in the crowd gave him an ironic cheer, that was harsh, I feel bad for doing it, but not too bad, because lets face it, he deserved it.
A 2-1 win is by no means disastrous, TFC should still have enough of an advantage in quality to be able to go to Nicaragua and finish the job next week, but they made it a lot harder than it needed to be. Or rather, Kocic did.