The first half wasn’t bad.
Toronto FC started the first leg of their Canadian Championship semi-final sloppily, but that can probably be attributed to them getting to grips with the turf and the Ottawa Fury coming out of the blocks quickly as they looked to put their more famous visitors on the back foot.
Once the Reds had come through that first 20-minute period and taken the sting out of the game, they started to knock the ball around cleanly and create some pressure in the Ottawa half.
Their improved play culminated in Benoit Cheyrou’s 35th-minute goal. Having had a first attack break down, Toronto recovered the second ball, kept Ottawa pinned back - with only forward Tucker Hume left up front - and then picked the lock, Cheyrou sprinting through a gap created by some clever hold-up play by Jordan Hamilton.
It was foreboding of the problems Toronto would have later in the game, though, that it was the veteran of the team that provided the spark. Cheyrou gets around the pitch well for a 36-year-old, but it is not typical of him to burst through the back line and make a driving run into the box with the ball.
For all Toronto’s neat play, a killer instinct had been missing and it was left for the man who was nominally the team’s most defensive midfielder to provide it.
The Reds had the opportunity to put the game - and the tie as a whole - to bed during that stretch before half-time but for all the glimpses of talent shown by Hamilton, Jay Chapman, Jonathan Osorio, Tsubasa Endoh and Raheem Edwards, aggressive, direct play towards the goal was in short supply.
“It wasn’t until the end of the game when we started putting balls in front of their goal and putting their back line under real pressure,” Greg Vanney said. “Before that we were just passing the ball around for the sake of passing the ball around, but we’ve got to finish some attacks, we’ve got to put some heat on their back line and we’ve got to put some things on goal. It took us too long to figure that out.”
That is natural for a young group and not a damning indictment of their future prospects, but it is something they must discover if they are to make the most of the potential they undoubtedly possess.
Hamilton’s flick into Cheyrou’s path was excellent and his overall self-assessment of his outing as “decent” was fair, but what will stick in the mind is the free header he could not direct on target from a Chapman cross with the score at 1-0.
The 21-year-old has all the tools to be a quality player at the professional level, but it is often what is in the head that separates the journeyman from the star. Thierry Henry, when asked what advice he would give Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé, put it best: “Develop your brain and become a killer.”
“Develop your brain, your intelligence and your movement,” he added. “What can you see? When you watch a match, don’t just watch the ball, watch the movement off the ball. Understand quickly who is weak in the match, who you should attack and who you shouldn’t attack, how to attack this player and understand all of that.”
Become a predator, in short. That will take time, and it is not just about age; Jozy Altidore arrived in Toronto with plenty of experience under his belt but it took him a while, for various reasons, to rediscover the mindset that made him such a success in the Netherlands but that he lost during his time in the Premier League.
It also helps when young players go into the lineup supported by more accomplished pros, and that was largely not the case in Ottawa. Though Chapman started the match well, there was a distinct difference between his performance in Seattle with Altidore in front of him and the one he turned in on Tuesday with Hamilton leading the line.
Chapman was far more direct and penetrative against the Sounders but that was a result of Altidore setting the tone for him and putting relentless pressure on the defence. Without a presence like that in front of them, neither Chapman nor Jonathan Osorio really took the game by the scruff of the neck and looked to force the issue.
That allowed Ottawa to stay in the game during their most difficult period, and their aerial strength coupled with the set-piece expertise of Ryan Williams provided them with a consistent threat. Toronto had far more talent on the field, but in the end it meant little because of the lack of an appetite to go in for the kill.