In the least surprising result of MLS First Kick, our Reds fell 0 - 1 to the Vancouver Whitecaps in their opening match of the 2013 season. What is somewhat surprising is the manner in which they played; at least for the first 45 minutes. In a tale of two halves (and a certain midfielder named Reo-Coker) TFC showed some incremental signs that perhaps they are indeed learning and growing. Don't start planning the parade - there was still plenty areas of improvement on display - but nor is there a reason to think "typical TFC".
The game started with a mild surprise in the Toronto starting XI as newly signed striker Robert Earnshaw earned the start in place of the injured Justin Braun. Whether Earnshaw would even be available to play was up in the air right up until Saturday afternoon when obviously his paperwork came through. The other concern - Earnshaw's fitness level - was dismissed (or perhaps not as dire as we thought) as coach Ryan Nelsen had close to no other option; other than giving rookie Emery Welshman the start instead. The rest of the lineup was little surprise - most gratifying was seeing Darren O'Dea and Danny Califf as the CB pairing for this game. The two veterans will be crucial going forward as TFC strives to be a more defensively sound team.
The game started - well the game started late thanks to extra ends in a curling match on TSN - you've never seen so many football fans talking about curling before - although thankfully TSN and MLS did the right thing and delayed the start of the game. But still, curling? Not that there's anything wrong with curling. OK, back to our regularly scheduled post-game...
The game was truly a tale of two halves for Toronto. The first half was a pleasant surprise for Toronto supporters and likely less than pleasant for the Whitecaps and their fans. Showing some surprisingly - yes, surprisingingly, this is TFC after all - good work on the defensive side the entire back line were dealing with everything thrown at them. Although rookie Kekuta Manneh did his best to give Richard Eckersley fits as he came down the wing time and time again. Manneh is fast! And for an 18yr old showed a great deal of talent on the ball - but Ecks was able to stay with him for the most part and was very solid on the right - he was tracking back and everything! Progress!
Also standing out for the Reds in the first half were Robert Earnshaw and Kyle Bekker. Earnshaw showed little of the rust in the first half - he put on several displays of speed, was getting into open areas looking for service and even tracked back on defense a few times. Once he is at full match fitness this could be an excellent pick-up for TFC. But they will need to have someone (paging Silva) available to get him better service. He was left wanting on more than one occasion. But even without the service he showed a great instinct in the attacking end - winning kicks, not afraid to shoot and generally making a pest of himself.
Bekker (in his first pro start) showed a lot to like. Patient, excellent passing but did seem hesitant on more than one occasion and in the beginning a touch slow to react and passing one too many times. He took the majority of set pieces and sent in some very nice balls - expect to see more of that from him going forward. He put in a very solid effort and showed flashes of why Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen were so adamant at taking him in the draft.
Overall the first half was notable for TFC's ability to not just defend well but to keep their shape, communicate and put some pressure on the Vancouver defense. I was actually a bit startled to see how much time they spent on the attack - showing a lot of high pressure early on - forcing Joe Cannon to make several early saves. And the first half ended with TFC having taken more of the possession and filling fans with an odd sensation - what was that, optimism? Yeah, that. Very odd indeed. However in true TFC tradition of not wanting fans to get too excited we bring you the second half.
The second half started with one noticeable change - newly signed Whitecap and veteran EPL midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker was brought on in place of Manneh. And with that it was though a switch had been flipped. The experience of Reo-Coker was evident immediately as he took control of the midfield and the Whitecaps pressed hard and fast around Toronto's net. Suddenly the Reds could not clear, started to look ragged and sat back absorbing far too much pressure. Joe Bendik was forced to make several nice saves; palming the ball out of danger multiple times. In the end they could not sustain the pressure and in the 59' Gershon Koffie scored after a lovely bit of passing between YP Lee and Kenny Miller drew the defense and Kobayashi took a Lee pass and easily sent it to Koffie who gave Joe Bendik no chance to save the shot.
After the goal, instead of collapsing the Reds regrouped and continued to try to win the game. Hogan Ephraim - who had been mostly invisible for the first half - started doing some nice work on the left, winning balls, moving through the defense but obviously still a bit rusty so not as sharp as was needed, especially when passing. Still, sustained pressure from Bekker, the seemingly untiring Earnshaw and Reggie Lambe forced Rustin and Co. to deal with several nicely won free kicks.
In the end though fatigue began to play a part. Both Earnshaw and Ephraim (who looked tired through a lot of the game) were showing signs of flagging, as was Kyle Bekker. Taylor Morgan was brought on in the 75' for Terry Dunfield as Nelsen showed his desire to go for the goal and not bunker and Emery Welshman on in the 85' for Earnshaw for some late game energy. And although T. Morgan had a couple of opportunities lack of organized pressure and possibly some nerves saw the shots easily saved. Final whistle and TFC had lost yet another opener, but by a somewhat surprising score of 1-0.
There are definitely positives to take from this game - most notably is that Toronto stayed calm. Very rarely (if at all) did we see the usual TFC panic mode as things started to break down in the second half. Not much was said about O'Dea and Califf because they (for the most part) did their job, kept the defense organized and dealt with the Vancouver attack. There are obviously areas that need improvement - better work in the midfield, strikers need service, the defense still has a tendency to ball watch and there are some ongoing fitness issues - but considering most of us expected a rout and a lot of same old TFC in this game; I'll take the 1-0 loss. Not happily but neither am I ready to consign this season to the scrap heap. It is only one game; how they play this Saturday at the Sky Dome against Sporting KC will be telling. But in the meantime; shining light!