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Recap & Highlights: Jacob Shaffelburg’s first MLS goal salvages draw vs. New York City FC

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The Reds leave a feisty affair in the Bronx with a point as Armas’ tactics start to take shape.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After putting forth their best effort so far in the Chris Armas era in their 2-0 win against Columbus on Wednesday, Toronto FC looked to carry that momentum into Yankee Stadium to take on a New York City FC side looking to build on their good start to the season. After an opening day loss to D.C. United, New York came into this match on the back of a 1-1 draw with Orlando, following 2-0 and 5-0 victories over Philadelphia and Cincinnati. With their opponents attacking abilities in mind, Chris Armas rolled out a reconfigured formation for his team in an effort to dominate the smaller pitch found within the baseball stadium that New York City somehow still play at.

With Jozy Altidore showing his intentions in his appearance against Columbus, Armas gave him the nod to partner Ayo Akinola up front, who similarly looks to be rounding into form. This departure from the previously favoured lone striker formation was undertaken in favour of a very surprising decision to pair Auro with Michael Bradley in the centre of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation. Kemar Lawrence drew into the side for his first start in Red and Dom Dwyer made the match-day 18 with Armas alluding pre-match that he would be in line for a cameo.

Straight from the jump, NYCFC looked to push forward and put the Reds on the back foot, with Valentin Castellanos looking to continue his hot start and put the Gonzalez-Mavinga pairing under pressure. The 22-year-old quickly looked to establish himself as a threat, but mistimed two early opportunities, an offside and an off-target header, that he could have potentially done damage with.

Yeferson Soteldo and Jozy Altidore looked bright early, with TFC looking to build on one of the pressing successes they’ve found early in this season and pin NYCFC back deep into their own corners, forcing some uncertain moments out of Ronny Deila’s defence. Soteldo’s attacking intent was on display early, with the new man forcing Sean Johnson into a fine save after 10 minutes, cutting in from the left wing to fire a shot with eyes for the far side bottom corner.

In the 22nd minute, Auro and Lareya combined (at about second base) to slip Lareya into the box where he curled in a low cross towards Ayo Akinola that Maxime Chanot did extremely well to turn away for a corner, stealing away what looked to be a sure tap-in from the TFC striker. Toronto were finding spaces out wide, with Lareya and Soteldo especially finding themselves in positions to ask questions of the opposition defense.

Through 30 minutes, Soteldo looked to be the most dangerous piece of the Toronto attack in what was developing into a cagey affair in the Bronx. The winger was once again twisting and turning an opposition defense at will to find space in dangerous areas, providing the only truly consistent spark in a match that was developing into a bit of a suffocated venture. Neither Altidore or Akinola were able to get on the ball with any consistency and the match seemed to be set up to be decided at this point by which side would make the first mistake.

In the 40th minute, Toronto’s defense was called into action. After Omar Gonzalez stepped up into the infield to play a ball, a Castellanos slip on the baseball diamond (seriously, why is NYCFC still playing here) created a bit of a broken play that led to New York breaking with numbers the other way, Jesus Medina looked to play give and go through the defensive line to open up a shot in the box, but Chris Mavinga was able to slide in to deny the striker a sniff at goal.

Almost immediately afterwards, New York continued to push for the breakthrough, but Toronto were able to hold firm enough to see out the half. As the halftime whistle blew, Toronto would have felt encouraged by a lot of what was on display, despite the match not quite kicking into second gear. Kemar Lawrence was excellent patrolling the left flank from the backline, exhibiting his immense positional intelligence to both anticipate and react to snuff out New York attacks and to offer support to the attack. He looks posed to pick right up where he left as one of the most elite defenders in the league. Auro looked solid in his surprise role at the base of the TFC midfield, providing the mobility and defensive awareness needed to get the job done and Soteldo continued to provide the technical flair needed to unlock the tight spaces provided by this baseball diamond that Alejandro Pozuelo has thrived on in the past.

As the second half got underway, New York once again looked to attack from jump, with Jesus Medina catching the defense backtracking to create an opportunity that eventually fell to Tajouti-Shradi who, thankfully, couldn’t do more than swing hopefully at it as it went out for a goal-kick. Unfortunately, that luck would run out for Toronto minutes later as NYC would find their breakthrough off of a set piece.

After a promising attack spearheaded by Soteldo that Toronto really should have gotten more out of, NYC took the lead from what seemed to be a pretty innocuous free kick in the 53rd minute. Fired in from the left side of TFC’s area, the ball coming in caught Alex Bono by surprise as it bounced short and rose quickly on the mis-timed goalkeeper, striking him in the face and falling right into the path of the charging Jesus Medina who was able to slot home past the stunned Bono to break the deadlock.

It was a disappointing way for the Reds to go behind and it seemed to swing the tide of the momentum in the match. Following the goal, NYC seemed to come more alive, looking to stretch the Toronto defense and catch them backpedalling and looking more dangerous as the match edged past the hour mark. If not for an excellent double-stop from Alex Bono from another free kick, Toronto could have very well been down 2-0 at this point.

Any energy the Reds showed up to this point seemed to be sucked out of the side with New York only seemingly growing in stature. In an effort to correct this Armas followed his earlier introduction of Patrick Mullins and Nick DeLeon, who came on for Altidore and Endoh, by bringing on Jacob Shaffelburg and the debutant Dom Dwyer for Soteldo and Akinola. In these moves, Armas signalled his intent to bring energy into the match and to make life difficult for New York as TFC looked to equalize.

From here, the match devolved into some state of chaos. Alex Bono will be counting his blessings as he got away with firing a clearance off the back of Jesus Medina’s head at the edge of the area that rebounded up and over the ‘keeper and into the TFC net, only for it to be ruled out by an early whistle as the referee had adjudged that Medina had intentionally obstructed the clearance. Medina did jump, but for Bono to put himself in the position to have his kick blocked was a misreading of his surroundings and is the kind of tunnel-vision that can occur when a player is looking to overcompensate following a critical mistake.

Following this, the newly introduced Dom Dwyer did Dom Dwyer things to get under the skin of everyone in blue and cranked the temperature of this match way up. In the resulting fracas, NYC seemed more concerned with pleading their case to the official and less with, you know, defending and Toronto were able to capitalize in the 74th minute. Following a rather unconventional one-two with Dom Dwyer, Patrick Mullins picked up the ball centrally at the top of the box and with a flick of the outside of his boot was able to slot Jacob Shaffelburg in on goal. Staring down Sean Johnson, the Maritime man was able to fire a smart left footed shot past the goalkeeper into the bottom corner of the net to level the match and to register his first MLS goal.

It was Toronto’s turn to come alive at this point, as the goal and the chaos seemed to light a fire under Armas’ men. Jacob Shaffelburg’s hard driving, energetic running from the left wing almost paid dividends immediately after he scored as he quickly created two more opportunities to keep the New York defense scrambling. Schaffelburg will certainly be making a strong case for himself to become a super-sub for the Reds if he can consistently bring this kind of energy from the bench.

Toronto stayed resolute and put forward a gritty and composed performance following the chaos and intensity on the rise in the second half. The Reds were able to stay level-headed and structured as New York looked to engage in more of the ‘dark arts’ the game can provide and draw Toronto into cynical or reckless fouls. As the final whistle blew, Toronto can feel satisfied with a point on the road, but will go forward knowing that they could have pushed to get more out of the match following how New York were only able to find their breakthrough on the back of a glaring goalkeeping error.

Despite that disappointment in the match, the club will be thrilled with the performances of the newly added Lawrence and Soteldo, who look to be the mainstays of that left flank going forward. Though Soteldo is still looking very much like he is adjusting to the new squad, and the fact that the squad is still very much adjusting to him, he was effective in his role and will only grow in influence on the pitch. The club will also be encouraged by Dwyer’s ability to unsettle teams with the edge he can bring to games. Couple these positives with the strong contributions from Shaffelburg and Mullins off of the bench, and the surprisingly efficient Auro in his holding midfield role, Armas looks to have even more options at his disposal as the bigger fixtures of this side in Osorio and Pozuelo near their return to action.

Toronto leave this match on that terrible Yankee Stadium pitch only 3 points back from New York in first place and look to be growing in cohesion, fitness and tactical direction. Armas’ decisions were at full value today with the manager being vindicated in his decision to start Auro in the middle of the park and his substitutions provided the spark that grabbed a point for Reds. These are encouraging signs and point to a manager that is becoming more fluent and confident in what his squad bring to the table and how he can deploy them as well as a side that is bought in to this new direction. The Reds will look to build on this increasing cohesion and momentium over the next week in training before they are back in action again on Saturday, May 22nd at 7:00pm EST as they take on their roommates Orlando City.