After all the eye-catching soccer that Toronto FC has been playing recently, today felt like a bit of a digression. The smooth and silky passing of late turned disjointed. The chemistry that the club had been showing lately was rarely apparent, and miscommunication ruled the day.
Nonetheless, Toronto FC will leave BMO Field tonight with three more points to their total after a 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake. It is their third victory in a row, and while it was the least dominant of the three it was likely the most important.
Playing one of the best road teams in Major League Soccer, Toronto FC were again able to defend their home field. It didn't matter all that much how they got it done, really.
"We don't apologise for it," said Greg Vanney after the match, "we just take the three points and move up the standings."
They achieved those three points as a result of a double substitution that Vanney made early in the second half, after the offence got only one shot on target through the first 45 minutes. He brought on Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts to try and create a spark.
The pair got right to work, creating a couple of chances before finding their breakthrough. After having difficulty finding their way past the Real Salt Lake defence for most of the match, Toronto FC found their chance as a result of some route one soccer.
Altidore brought down a long ball from Alex Bono, which found its way through to Tosaint Ricketts. Making only his second appearance for Toronto FC, Ricketts made no mistake in front of goal, volleying the ball past Nick Rimando. It was a moment that the Canadian will remember for a long time.
"It felt like my first goal for Canada [at BMO Field]," said Ricketts. "This is a special place for me, and I love to play here."
The first half was slow for both sides, as not a single shot on goal was registered until the 39th minute. Both teams had just played this past Sunday, and the resulting fatigue, both mental and physical, was evident throughout the match.
Players appeared more frustrated than usual with one another as they bickered back and forth throughout the match. Toronto FC never quite seemed to get things right in the midfield, as the club's young group had a less compelling sequel to their impressive first match against DC United.
Marky Delgado, Jay Chapman, Tsubasa Endoh and Jonathan Osorio all had their moments, but none of them truly had a great match as they failed to mesh together as they have in the past.
"It was almost due for our young guys to not connect and all have a good solid game together," said Vanney. "It's not just them, I think by and large the group just didn't connect appropriately tonight. It happens."
When the outfield doesn't connect well, teams often need their keeper to come up big. Alex Bono responded tonight with easily his best professional start. Bono was named man of the match and absolutely deserved it, making two huge saves, one on each side of halftime.
The second was particularly impressive, as he sprang off his line to deny a through ball played to a Real Salt Lake attacker. It was a play that took a lot of confidence, and his timing could not have been more perfect.
"I thought we were a little bit porous at times defensively, and Alex was always there to bail us out," said Vanney. "I thought he was excellent. I thought his distribution was pretty solid as well, and I thought he had a good night."
Toronto FC now has nine clean sheets on the season, Bono has three while Clint Irwin has six. That is a new club record, beating the previous mark set in 2010. Toronto FC still has 12 regular season games to add to that tally.
It's a stat indicative of the team's newfound defensive responsibility, as it has gone from among the worst teams in the league defensively last season to among the best thing year.
While clean sheets officially go under Bono's name on the stat sheet, he doesn't see it that way.
"Clean sheet to me are not a goalkeeper statistic," he told reporters, "it's something that a goalkeeper can't earn on his own. It's a whole team effort from start to finish. So for us to have nine clean sheets, and have that be the team record, that's fantastic. Now we are going to try to raise that bar for teams in the future to try to aim for."
It's long been said that contenders don't always have to be at their best to win games. That was Toronto FC today, and they earned three points. Now in second place in the Eastern Conference, it is time to truly consider them among the league's best teams.