Hope is a strong word to use within Toronto FC circles, usually because it is the precursor to disappointment. But there is no other way to describe what a 3-2 comeback victory over the Portland Timbers gives Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Unlike last week, this result cannot easily be belittled. This isn't Chivas, Portland are a deep and offensively gifted team who could have easily ripped Toronto to shreds. They almost did.
Instead, Michael Bradley will capture the headlines for a looping free kick that found the back of the net, even if that wasn't its intended target. It was a rare moment of luck, but it was definitely deserved. After a second straight loss to the Philadelphia Union in early September dropped Toronto FC out of a playoff spot, Bradley was quick to say that anyone who thought the team had given up "had something coming to them". He might as well have been talking about himself, as his lethargic play during the stretch was well documented. Today, and in the past couple of matches, he has proven that his commitment to this team is more than just words.
"These are the kind of days that change seasons," said Bradley of the win. "If you use these kind of afternoons in the right way they can give you a real boost. I thought the fans and the crowd were unbelievable today. Even at 2-0 down they kept in it."
But if anyone was the personification of this match, it was Nick Hagglund. The rookie centreback, like his team, had a horrid start. It was his giveaway that helped the Timbers open the scoring in the 13th minute. This led to questions about whether or not he could handle big game situations, just as his team was being criticised for the same thing. Hagglund, however, was also the catalyst of a second half comeback, scoring both goals. He was the perfect example of the team continuing to play with hope, even after it appeared to have run out.
"I knew that I had to dig the team back out," said Hagglund. "I knew that I made a mistake and it was my job to make up for it. I was going to do everything [possible] to make that happen."
The goals were Hagglund's first two of his MLS career, one of many firsts for Toronto FC in this match. Far more importantly, the team has now set a franchise record for wins: 11. The obvious other record that was also broken was points, the club now has 40. But while both numbers are a nice sign of progress, they are absolutely meaningless if the team fails to make the playoffs.
After a rough start to his coaching tenure, Greg Vanney may finally be the man who puts them there. Some noticeable differences have been instituted into Toronto's game, and they are finally paying dividends. One of these things is tactical flexibility, perhaps Nelsen's biggest flaw: there is no doubt Toronto played a very different style in the two halves of this match and it ultimately led to the result. The second is set pieces, which have been the creator of five of the last six Toronto FC goals. It may not be the most reliable source of offense, but for now it is working.
"I can't say that we spend an overtly [excessive] amount of time working on them," explained Vanney of his team's set piece preparation. "But we put a lot of time and energy on trying to set up things that can help us and give us an edge."
If there was anything particularly concerning about the match it may have been the club's strikers. It is an issue all but lost because of the team's six goal output in the past two matches, but it doesn't completely mask the team's offensive struggles as of late. Both Moore and Gilberto had tap ins as a result of brilliant set pieces last week, but both of them have had problems creating, and finishing chances from open play recently. They struggled again today in this regard, Gilberto especially with some glaring misses. The last time either of the two have scored from open play was August 23rd, when they combined for a goal against Chicago Fire.
Help is on the way in this regard, however, as all signs point to Jermain Defoe being back for next week's match against the Los Angeles Galaxy. This will constitute the final piece in Toronto's puzzle returning, and hopefully represents an end to the plague of injuries that has crippled this team.
One player that may be a little worse for wear is Mark Bloom, who appeared to have picked up a slight knock after the match from his horrendous collision with Will Johnson less than a minute into the match. Portland's captain certainly got the worst of the challenge, and almost certainly has a broken leg. This resulted in a very long stoppage that definitely affected the early part of the game.
"I thought we both went in clean, no one went in dirty," explained Bloom. "It's just unfortunate that someone had to come out like that."
A large part of the importance of winning this match for Toronto FC is the fact that there next fixture is by far the most difficult of their remaining five. The Galaxy have the most goals of any team in MLS, and have shot up the Western Conference standings into second place. Meeting them on the road will be one of Toronto's most difficult fixtures of the season.
But it also presents them with an opportunity. If the team is able to steal points then that aforementioned hope of making the playoffs becomes far more likely, maybe even a reality.