By DAVID SHOALTS
Monday, March 18, 2019
TORONTO -- There was an encouraging sign from Toronto FC's home-opener Sunday night - the kids are all right.
With designated player Sebastian Giovinco leaving the Major League Soccer team in a messy divorce and Jozy Altidore still easing his way back from off-season ankle surgery, there was the question of where the scoring would come from this season.
Well, a trio of youngsters answered that, with Altidore himself providing the punctuation with the winning goal in a 3-2 decision over the New England Revolution. Altidore entered the game in the 67th minute and scored the big goal, as he so often does, with one of those young players, Justin Morrow, providing the feed.
It was just the sort of game TFC head coach Greg Vanney was hoping for when he talked about this year's lineup learning to work together in the wake of a disastrous 2018 campaign. He said after the Reds' last day of practice in preparation for the game he was seeing signs he liked.
"Whether you're in the starting 11 or not, the guys are playing for each other," Vanney said.
"They enjoy each other. It's been a great vibe, the foundation for something that can be special.
"Now you continue to grow as a team, grow tactically, and execute throughout the course of the season how you need to. In our league, where the margins are fine, team chemistry pushes the bar in your favour just a little bit more. The mentality has been good. The guys want to play games."
TFC took a 2-1 lead into the second half thanks to the youngsters' excellent work up front that made up for some struggles on the back line by some of the veterans. Ayo Akinola, 19, scored his first MLS goal for TFC in the 14th minute and Jordan Hamilton celebrated his 23rd birthday with a goal in the 45th minute.
Those two Reds forwards, along with midfielder Jay Chapman, were the driving forces of the offence and figured in both first-half goals. The 23,271 Reds fans at BMO Field gave Hamilton a long, loud salute when he departed in the 67th minute for Altidore.
This made up for some struggles on the defensive side of things for the Reds. While they opened the game in good fashion, as TFC controlled the ball for most of the early going, the defenders, and Chris Mavinga in particular, had some wobbles.
In the ninth minute, after a couple of great TFC scoring chances, Mavinga chopped down Revolution forward Teal Bunbury from behind in the box for a penalty.
Striker Carles Gil scored on the penalty kick.
However, the Reds picked up the attack and Akinola soon scored his first MLS goal with a tremendous individual effort.
Showing a confidence well beyond his years, Akinola took the ball among a crowd of New England defenders, spun around and through four of them toward the goal and fired his shot home.
As the half progressed, the game grew more physical and by halftime the Revolution was a distinctly unhappy group. Hamilton's goal, which came as stoppage time approached, did not help the visitors' dispositions.
But at the same time the Revolution could be faulted for the inattention of its defence, as Hamilton was left by himself and snuck into the box where he converted a perfect cross from Chapman, who had taken a feed from Akinola.
The New England players argued fiercely that Hamilton was offside. The video-assistant referee (VAR) upheld the goal but the Revolution were still upset. Several surrounded referee Ted Unkel to argue their case and Gil was so incensed he had to be restrained by his teammates.
Gil remained fired-up as the second half started and by the 52nd minute had his second goal of the game to tie the score 2-2.
He put a shot off defender Auro Jr. and just out of reach of centre half Drew Moor as goalkeeper Alex Bono was caught on the left side of the net.
A couple of days before the game Altidore said he felt good but admitted he is still not up to game-shape.
"It's going to take time. Match fitness I'm behind," said Altidore, who signed a contract extension prior to the season-opener. "But in terms of being eligible, I feel really good. I'm excited, I want to get on the field and score at BMO. This is what I live for.
"A big reason to stay was I love playing for these fans. Hopefully I can start or come off the bench and have an effect on the game."
TFC's Nick DeLeon battles for the ball with Luis Caicedo of New England Revolution during the first half of their match in Toronto on Sunday.
CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS