After regrouping and reinforcing, Toronto FC headed home to Exploria Stadium in an effort to rebound from their humbling loss to the New York Red Bulls and in the hopes of leaving their early season woes in their rearview mirror. Chris Armas’ side found themselves heading into this match against the new (?) and controversial Columbus SC with more reinforcements within their ranks, with newly acquired Jamaican international defender Kemar Lawrence in the matchday 18 and MLS veteran marksman Dom Dwyer soon to be eligible to play, the manager has further artillery in his tactical quiver to add alongside Yeferson Soteldo to go forth this season.
Toronto FC Starting XI vs. Columbus SC: Bono; Auro, Mavinga, Gonzalez, Laryea; Bradley, Priso, Soteldo, DeLeon, Delgado; Akinola pic.twitter.com/DZSJMnklf0— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) May 12, 2021
However, despite the new additions, the man that makes it all happen for the Reds, Alejandro Pozuelo, was still absent from the squad, with the story around his injury seemingly becoming more opaque by the day. He was joined on IR by Jonathan Osorio, who is still being treated with caution after an inflammation of his right thigh muscle before the NYRB match, but should be back in contention soon.
Despite having the wrong badge on their shirts, Columbus came into this match in fine form, looking resolute and assured in defense and boasting an MLS best defensive record through their first 3 games after conceding only a solitary goal in this young campaign.
The Reds looked to instantly put Columbus under pressure, with Yeferson Soteldo charging forward and asking questions of the opposition’s backline from his no.10 position. Showing his dynamism, the Venezuelan international pulled wide into his customary left-wing to draw an early foul — a free kick he claimed and whipped in a ball the likes of which Toronto FC have been desperately missing so far.
Early in this match, Toronto looked a completely different side than the one that took the field against the Red Bulls. There was more assurance in their play, a better structure and a more positive outlook in their approach to the match. The addition of Soteldo has also given the squad another x-factor in attack that keeps opposition defenders honest and continuously checking the space over their shoulder.
Soon, they’d use that positive play to draw blood. In the 13th minute, a great Yeferson Soteldo delivery from a corner wasn’t dealt with by the Crew’s defence, causing the ball to ping around to the box, ultimately falling to Michael Bradley who fired home in emphatic fashion with his second bite at the cherry after smashing his first opportunity off of Omar Gonzalez. It was a deserved lead, and one the captain took well, as Toronto had been playing the match to this point almost entirely on their terms.
In true early 2021 Reds fashion, despite their best efforts, Columbus almost struck back immediately. Gyasi Zardes found himself completely alone in the TFC box, but his hesitation in the face of a charging Alex Bono proved costly as Toronto’s no.25 was able to shut the door on the attacker. Despite facing criticism early in this season, Bono looked confident and steady between the sticks, answering every question posed by Columbus.
Yeferson Soteldo certainly looks to be as advertised. Predominantly roaming between his starting no.10 position and the left wing, the attacker was twisting the Columbus defense in knots, bombarding them with pace and a blizzard of stepovers, surely setting the defenders up for a night hampered by taunting, torturous dreams of a whirlwind of white New Balance boots. In the 26th minute, our new boy looked set to add to their torment by slotting away his first goal in red, but was somehow denied by a frantic Saad Abdul-Salaam charging across a gaping Columbus goalmouth to heroically deny the Venezuelan after he found himself the benefactor of the rebound of a thunderous Nick DeLeon shot that could only find iron.
As the first half drew to a close, Toronto continued to dictate play and looked to take the sting out of the match. There seemed to be a concerted effort to play more simply out of the back, with TFC’s defenders or the deeper lying Bradley or Ralph Priso dropping into wider positions to open up options for Bono when he was in possession. A simplification of previous tactics in many ways from Chris Armas, but one that allowed Toronto’s strength to shine.
Through 45 minutes, Toronto looked the better side by some margin. The lively Soteldo and an Ayo Akinola looking increasingly in form spearheaded an attack and a more calculated pressing effort that was aided by the excellent work of Mark Delgado and Nick DeLeon. Michael Bradley had been the standout man in the middle of the park, providing not just the lone goal, but also a stability and reliability to the midfield in both halves of the field.
The defense looked assured, collected and in control of their lines, falling into formation in unison to defend set pieces well (!!!) and snuff out any areas for the Crew (I refuse to change) to exploit. Priso and Bradley dropped in well to support Auro and Lareya pushing forwards or to help connect play out of the back and Alex Bono looked as solid a shot stopper as ever. All in all, this was one of the best halves the Reds have put forth this season.
Toronto began the second half under pressure, with Columbus’ talisman Lucas Zelarayan looking to curate a comeback. In the 48th minute, Zelerayan’s guile played in Alexandru Matan, who definitely made the opportunity more difficult for himself. The Romanian picked up the ball on the left-hand side of the pitch, and shifted and shifted...and shifted along the top of Toronto’s 18 looking to settle onto his right foot, but was instead met by an excellent challenge from Chris Mavinga who, in partnership with Omar Gonzalez brought a steadiness to this match that has been wanting in others.
Columbus’ pressure continued through the first 15 minutes of this half, only interrupted by another much improved attacking set-piece from Armas’ men. Yeferson Soteldo’s dead ball expertise looking to be quite a boon for the squad, with the star man playing a clever, flat delivery to exploit a unorganized Columbus defense to find an unmarked Omar Gonzalez in the area who unfortunately had his shot cleared off the line by the quick-thinking Darlington Nagbe.
Armas looked to change things up around the hour mark, bringing on Jozy Altidore and Patrick Mullins into the match for Ayo Akinola and Nick DeLeon, and this decision almost immediately looked to be a stroke of clairvoyance by the manager. Moments after entering the match, Michael Bradley pinged an inch perfect ball through to Altidore, who had made an intelligent, charging run between the two Columbus centre-backs and had Jozy not been coming into the play cold, Toronto could have well be 2-0 up at this point.
Jozy once again came close to doubling the lead in the 75th minute as he flashed a glimpse into his vintage form to unleash a howitzer from just beyond the Columbus area, with his shot hitting the crossbar with enough venom that I’m confident that the frame of the goal is still vibrating as you read this. That strike looked to channel all of the frustrations of his recent struggles, manifesting into white-hot artillery fired from a weapons-grade Nike Tiempo.
As the match wore on, Toronto were able to steady the ship to hit back at Columbus’ early attacking intent, with the introduction of debutant Kemar Lawrence helping to add further defensive stability and the attacking duo of Mullins and Altidore adding a much needed spark to the attack to push the Crew to defend deeper.
Looking the part of a man who would not be denied, Jozy Altidore was making his presence felt within Toronto’s growing attack, hustling and hurrying the opposition defense and linking up with his teammates well. In the 87th minute, the veteran striker marked his return to the side and laid down a marker of his intent in 2021 by crashing home a looping Omar Gonzalez header to double Toronto’s lead and assure the Reds picked up the first 3 points in the league of the Armas era.
Though they were pushed into some shaky moments early in the second half, Toronto put in the performance supporters were desperate to see. In a result that comes on the backs of a collective effort, Armas’ men found a balance between their intent to press and their need for cohesion and stability and were able to dictate the majority of the match on their terms. Armas seemed to roll out a plan that harnessed the best of his new tactical plan while still utilizing what comes natural to this group of players and they could have certainly left this match with more than just a 2-0 victory. Toronto will look to carry this momentum into their next match away to NYCFC at 1:00 EST on Saturday and build on what was their most thorough and decisive performance so far this season.