An 80-minute struggle was overcome by one moment of brilliance. Glorious moments as experienced Saturday have come few and far between for Toronto FC over their not-so illustrious history. More times than not, Toronto FC has been on the receiving end of those game-changing moments, ending in disappointment and distraught.
The script has been flipped in 2014. The most recent special moment came courtesy of Toronto FC's big-money striker. $6 million dollars, plus, is significant by Major League Soccer standards. You get what you pay for. And for Toronto FC's investment, they've got themselves a true difference-maker and match-winner in Jermain Defoe.
It was a picture perfect afternoon at BMO Field. The play on the field by Defoe's Toronto FC and the visiting Columbus Crew was hardly a masterpiece. Choppy, disconnected, overall poor play was commonplace. The product was substandard and frustrating to watch. That was until the 81st minute. Queue Defoe.
A typical searching, lazy ball was played forward by Toronto FC's backline as the Reds searched for an equalizer, down 2-1 to the Crew. Columbus was merely hanging on, bringing nothing to the proceedings. Toronto was similar, obliging their visitor. It was a Columbus mistake that opened the door. Michael Parkhurst the culprit, fresh off being left out of the US Men's National team 23 for Brazil, failing to control. The ball bounced high, then a poor header by the Crew defender before the ball fell on to the head of TFC substitute Gilberto. The Brazilian found Defoe between two Columbus defenders, only for Toronto FC's top scorer to hint right, before going left, hitting with his left-foot on the volley from outside the 18-yard box – a stunning finish out of nowhere. It was Defoe's second goal on the day and sixth of the early season.
It must be said Defoe hasn't been used to his fullest as of yet, lacking proper service over the course of 90 minutes. He's spent far too much time chasing matches. It's his predatory instincts and quality in finish that make him who he is, and largely why Toronto FC can afford to hang around in matches and not get punished. Six goals in seven games played is an incredible return on investment.
Another goal would come for TFC, a winner off the head of Doneil Henry in time added on to take the full three points. But it was Defoe's special strike that was the TSN Turning Point. The goal lifted the team at a time it didn't seem a goal would come. Heads lifted, energy flowed and belief returned.
"Sometimes it was painful to watch but they kept going," remarked Toronto FC Head Coach Ryan Nelsen post-match.
Earning points while not at their best is becoming trademark of this Toronto FC team. For the second consecutive week, TFC trailed twice before coming back to earn points. Toronto FC finds themselves in a very good spot, on 16 points through 10 games played. Despite sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference, they have the third best points per game (1.6) and have at least three games in hand on any team ahead of them, including five games in hand on the fourth place Houston Dynamo.
Here are my five thoughts after Toronto FC's 3-2 win.
Doneil Does It – The roller coaster continues for the young Canadian central defender. Doneil Henry's game winner made him feel like the hometown hero for the day. The 21-year old's physical presence is plain to see, with a build and athleticism beyond his years. Henry was first to a set piece Wednesday scoring the opener against the Montreal Impact, and came up even bigger against the Crew. Earlier in the game, Agustin Viana beat Henry to a ball in the air on Columbus' second goal. It wasn't entirely Henry's doing, with Toronto FC playing zonal defensively. Henry made amends on his match winner - the run and jump impeccable, coming to meet the ball with ideal timing and form. He was never going to be beat. The out-pouring of emotion was plain to see, shirt off and yelling to the crowd and his teammates. Despite his early season struggles, Henry doesn't lack confidence. His celebration was a signal of passion. It's channeling the passion and exuberance that's part of the growth process, becoming a complete player. Work is still to be done in improving positional discipline and proper timing in challenges. It's a process of patience and maturation. Saturday's goal is part of the journey. But you have to feel good for a player who works incredibly hard and ultimately has a very bright future.
Nelsen's 'A+' Adjustments – The Head Coach joked after the game things "couldn't get any worse." Changes were desperately needed. With Collen Warner missing (family wedding), Bradley Orr was again assigned the defensive midfield role. Nelsen prefers a true physical, defensive presence to sit on top of his back four. That was near essential playing the young duo of Henry and Nick Hagglund to lead the backline. The game changed with Orr being forced from the match after 18 minutes with a hamstring issue. Interesting enough, Dan Lovitz was preferred ahead of Alvaro Rey at outside left, raising further questions on Rey's form and true future with the club. It was a real struggle on the day for Lovitz – indecisiveness and poor distribution throughout. Lovitz did make amends with a lovely set piece assisting on Henry's winner. The early change allowed Jonathan Osorio to move inside, a position he looks more influential than outside left. Nelsen's second half adjustments were much more pronounced. The introduction of Gilberto was an impactful one. Gilberto was relegated to the bench to start; a good decision by Nelsen to take some pressure off the young Brazilian. Gilberto was put up front in the 66th minute, with Luke Moore moving wide left. Gilberto was an instant pest, using his speed and athleticism to cause problems in the Columbus backline. The response by Gilberto was ultimately a positive one. Some players let a demotion unsettle. No heads down and outward negativity by Gilberto. He put in an absolute shift, playing a part in both second half goals. Nelsen's other change, Dwayne De Rosario, came at the right time, as TFC desperately needed to push forward. DeRo was deployed in the middle of the park, a place he looked comfortable and composed. De Rosario is still class on the ball and gives TFC another asset in that position. Perhaps this is where he is best utilized, to change the look and pace of the game. The in-game changes by the manager continue to improve. Nelsen has a good read on his team, strengths and limitations. It must be remembered it's been a process thus far, with an improved squad in an awkward World Cup year. The way his team fights and plays for him allow room for tactical adjustments. It's coming along.
Putrid Passing – There is no other way of putting it: team passing is downright awful. There continue to be far too many long, searching balls for a team with players more comfortable with the ball at their feet. Seventy-three per cent pass completion on the day, with 84 fewer completed passes than a sub-par Columbus team, minus Federico Higuain, while playing at home is unacceptable. Most of the long ball play is coming from the back, but it's not entirely on the defenders. The movement off the ball simply isn't there. The only player really showing for the ball in accessible areas is the defensive midfielder. It was Kyle Bekker for most of Saturday. He'd come deep for the ball, get it, look up, and have no other option than going back or playing square to a central defender. This isn't good enough. The long ball stuff has to go. And better spacing/movement off the ball is essential.
Mess in the Midfield – It was never going to be easy with Michael Bradley away on World Cup duty. Seven points in three league games is huge for TFC without their midfield general. For Nelsen and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, the midfield continues to be the biggest conundrum and area in need of improvement. Without Bradley, the team has been exposed despite the positive results. Nelsen and his team tactics relies upon a traditional holding midfielder to support the back-line and allow a more attack minded central player link up with the front-line. Orr did well in this role before injury, but doesn't provide a complete range in his game to be an every-day holding midfielder. Orr's injury makes the acquisition of Warner that much more important. Those scoffing at the Warner trade look foolish now. Bekker is proving ill suited to a holding role. Osorio will never be that player. There is no question Warner is the first choice at the position, and it's not even close. It's about balance in the middle of the park. There are too many players playing out of position and very little natural depth. Look for this to be the area Bezbatchenko looks to alter as the season goes on.
Home Field Advantage – The banner draping the Southeast entrance of BMO Field says 'Welcome to the Fortress'. The home supporters played their role Saturday with BMO living up to that billing. Late in the match, when all seemed lost and the game was dire and slow, the crowd rose in voice, providing the energy the play lacked. The team was in desperate need of a lift and the supporters provided it. The interjection of life may be a little thing, but it absolutely matters. The team responded. Having Osorio and Bekker jump into the south-end post-match shows an understanding by the local products what the fan-base and their support means. It was a nice touch to cap off a dramatic comeback. Feel good vibes are returning.
The second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship goes Wednesday night in Montreal against the Impact before Toronto FC returns home Saturday for a date with the San Jose Earthquakes (4-4-4) on TSN and TSN 1050 Radio.