Before kick off of 23rd 12th home opener for Canada’s inaugural franchise, Toronto FC put on a memorable opening ceremony. For the first time ever a domestic championship, MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield stood side by side by side on the pitch for the first time in history. Two giant banners were held at midfield during the ceremony, one reading “Last season was last season.” By the end of the match that statement couldn’t be more relevant.
Toronto FC dropped their first match of the MLS season 2-0 to the Columbus Crew, their historic rival, in what could be the final Trillium Cup (should Columbus relocate to Texas next year). It was an uncharacteristically poor performance from the Reds who were coming off a 2-0 aggregate win over Colorado Rapids in the CONCACAF Champions League just days earlier. The match was characterized by the weather and field conditions. This was the first time the club has played an outdoor home game in early March and despite the best efforts of the BMO Field crew the pitch was a detriment to the quality of play. Many divets and mud made the ball bounce and it troubled some players in reading where the ball would go. The wind also played a factor as it blew from North end and affected player passing throughout the match.
Columbus looked the hungrier of the two sides and it showed with their intense high press and overall high energy throughout the match. Federico Higuain, brother of Juventus superstar Gonzalo was providing cheeky back heel passes to forward Cliff Martinez for several chances but the striker could not convert. Higuain took matters into his own hands in the 44th minute as he smashed home a shot just inside the 18 yard box. It was a shot that TFC keeper Alex Bono would have wanted to have back.
TFC had fielded a strong lineup including big off-season acquisition Gregory van der Wiel made his season debut. Regular starters Bradlye, Giovinco, Vazquez and Altidore also featured as did Jonathan Osorio. Ultimately was a case of mistimed, sloppy play that was the Reds’ downfall. The first minute of the second half sealed the game. A long stretch pass by Columbus’s Pedro Santos found Gyasi Zardes who slotted the ball home. TFC had several chances after that, and played much better with the wind at their backs. The switched formations after a precautionary substitution for Vazquez and a notable difference in play ensued. Higher pressing and better passing allowed the Reds to win the ball back and create chances but ultimately it was too little too late. Columbus avenged their loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference final from the 2017 playoffs
Sebastian Giovinco, TFC’s main man over their 3 year renaissance was held in check in this match. Giovinco had several shots on goal coming closest in the 65th minute when his curling shot hit the post and Altidore was unable to grab the rebound after an Auro Jr. shot. Although the vision was there the timing was off from the diminutive Italian both in his passing and shooting.The Atomic Ant will be disappointed in his performance but as the season will progress there will be more opportunity to build up the momentum that led the Reds to their historic season. Van der Wiel also looked off in terms of timing but that is only natural as he adjusts to life in North America after only playing 6 games for Cagliari this season.
Coach Greg Vanney acknowledged his team’s underwhelming performance in his post-match press conference, ““The last few minutes of the first half and first minute of the second half defined the result. Every new season is a new beginning that needs to be built upon game by game and today was another reminder of that.” He also confirmed that the Reds would not panic and that the loss does not change the team’s approach going forward.
Toronto FC plays one of the biggest matches in team history this upcoming Wednesday at BMO Field. The MLS and Canadian champions face Mexican side Tigres in the Quarter Finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. This will be a big test for the club who has made it known winning this trophy, the only one missing in their trophy case, is their top priority this season. Tigres is halfway done their “Clausura” season and have been on a recent hot streak. Knowing the present pitch conditions are not ideal is a slight advantage but TFC must be sharper in the first leg at home if they have any chance of surviving in Mexico. With their recent track record they should be able to bounce back. Despite the disappointing start there are reasons to be optimistic in this long season, and that the team’s timing will come. For MLS as a league and for the thousands of fans in the city of Toronto, they’d better hope it happens soon.