It was the day that TFC fans (and players and coaches) have been waiting for; the return to BMO Field, to playing on grass and to the first week with almost the entire team available for selection.
You couldn't have asked for a better day weather wise given that it was late March and spring has been reluctant to start in earnest - brilliant sunshine, not too windy, the pitch looked very good - all it needed was stands full of fans and a good performance from the Reds to end March on a high note. The fans in the stands continues to be an issue as even five minutes before kickoff the swaths of empty seats were everywhere. I say this every game; get into your seats on time people.
As for the team performance - well, as usual the Reds had their ups and downs throughout the match. There were no surprises in the starting XI as the rumoured move of Richard Eckersley to LB and Darel Russell at RB was confirmed. Whether this was intended to let Ashtone Morgan recover from jet lag or meant to be a wakeup call for the young LB is unknown; what quickly became apparent is that while Ecks can handle being on the left, Russell was pretty much a wash at RB. The other ongoing issue that has been very apparent so far this season is that the midfield is not up to par. It was an often frustrating game to watch and brought to mind too many Reds performances from the past as Russell showed little interest in playing defense and the midfield showed little ability to create or link up with the defenders or the forwards.
On the flip side is the continuing excellent play of Joe Bendik and Robert Earnshaw. Bendik - the starting role is his to lose Frei fans - could hardly be considered at fault for the goals scored and made two fantastic reaction saves to keep the Reds in the game; and Earnshaw continues to be the brightest spot on the team with not only his team leading goal tally, but his play - always full of energy, making defenders lives miserable and showing a keen awareness of where his teammates are on the field.
The game started with TFC looking energetic but a bit tentative and not as cohesive as they've been in the past couple of games. The Galaxy were soon able to capitalize on that lack of familiarity, when in the 16th minute Mike Magee eluded Russell and pounced on a scuffed Marcelo Sarvas shot, putting the ball past the far post. It was a dispiriting yet all too familiar moment, and there was little surprise among the 18,355 fans as the Reds had shown little to cheer about up to that point. However just over 10 minutes later Robert Earnshaw made Galaxy keeper Cudicini pay for a bizarre decision by the veteran keeper when he came far out of his area to claim a terrible back-pass. Earnshaw easily evaded Cudicini and coolly chipped the ball past two defenders to put the Reds even at a goal apiece.
Earnshaw's goal seemed to somewhat wake up the Reds and they went into the half looking much better than the first 30 minutes or so - when will this team learn to play a full 90 minutes? Sigh. The half-time mood was marginally optimistic. Lots of love for Earnshaw and the goal but more concern about the poor play of Russell and the glaring weaknesses on display in the midfield.
The second half saw no subs from Coach Nelsen to start, however they looked a little brighter and Jeremy Hall and especially Reggie Lambe - who looked like he was playing for his job for most of the second half - actually worked to create some chances and build play through the midfield. Early in the half Lambe sent a lovely ball to Bostock but he headed it straight at Cudicini. There were more focused attempts as both Hogan Ephraim (not his strongest outing) and Russell both made attempts on goal.
But the real change wouldn't come until Nelsen started making subs - in the 64th minute he brought on Canadian youngster Jonathan Osorio and minutes later Luis Silva joined him. The two immediately brought a spark to the game and they combined for the go ahead goal for TFC when Earnshaw sent a lovely backheel pass to Silva who dribbled into the box before sending a perfect ball to Osorio for the goal. It was a beautifully worked play and highlighted what has been missing for the past three games - creativity in the midfield - most especially Silva's ability on the ball and Osorio's positioning.
After the Osorio goal the Reds continued to press and looked to be holding off the league champs - could it happen? Could they actually come away with three points in a game that few thought they'd even take a single point? Of course the answer is no - this is TFC after all - in time honoured TFC tradition they conceded the tying goal in added time when Russell really capped off his shocking day's play by heading a cross beyond the far post back into the middle and pretty much right on to the foot of Villareal who made no mistake to put the ball past Bendik. Final score: 2-2.
This was a frustrating game as by the end the draw felt a lot like a loss. While the first half had few positives other than Bendik's play in net and Earnshaw's goal; the second had enough to think they'd finally turned a corner and were equal to one of the best teams in the league. It is clear that the experiment of Russell at RB should end at one game and that a midfield of Terry Dunfield, Jeremy Hall, Reggie Lambe, John Bostock and Hogan Ephraim are not the answer going forward. As Russell clearly sees himself as a winger - as he spent the majority of the game playing far up and not just on overlapping plays - perhaps that's an option for Nelsen going forward as he sees something in Russell other than lack of defensive positioning, at least I certainly hope so. I would expect that we'll see Silva back in the starting XI from now on which will likely see Ephraim or Lambe taking a seat on the subs bench.
Positive note: 4 points in 4 games! Did anyone actually think this was an achievable number when the season started? I certainly didn't, so it is a sign of how high our expectations have been raised by the improved play of our Reds when we lament a draw against one of the best teams in the league.