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Earnshaw, Toronto FC beat KC to snap MLS winless streak

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The Canadian Press
3/9/2013 8:07:06 PM
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TORONTO -- It's only one win but it was a long time coming. And to Toronto FC fans and players alike, it was a sign that perhaps the struggling MLS franchise is finally on the right road.

Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw scored twice Saturday and Toronto held on to defeat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 under the dome at Rogers Centre, snapping a 15-game MLS winless streak in the process.

New manager Ryan Nelsen, while savouring the win and his team's ability to survive Kansas City's late push, cautioned that it was only three points.

"Look we're still a long way away from where we want to be," said the former New Zealand international.

"We've got to take baby steps in a way to become a very good team," he added. "Yes, this will help in a lot of ways but we've still got a lot of work to do. We need to improve the team, we need to improve everything."

Still the win was a badly needed tonic for a franchise with a history of failure. Toronto fans have had little to cheer about.

"There's probably been a few mental scars over the past couple of years," Nelsen acknowledged.

Toronto, the worst team in MLS last season at 5-21-8, had not won a league game since July 18 when it beat Colorado 2-1. It came into the game just three matches away from the MLS winless record set by Real Salt Lake in 2005-06.

Had the winless streak continued, the negative vibe would undoubtedly have snowballed for Toronto FC. Especially given the team started last season with a league-record 0-9-0 run.

Kansas City saw its 13-game league win streak snapped -- one shy of the club record.

Kansas City (1-1-0) finished 40 points ahead of Toronto last season but came out sluggishly, as it had done the previous week before rallying to defeat Philadelphia 3-1.

"They were all over us at one point and we didn't have any response to that," said Kansas City goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen.

The second half was a different story but Toronto, up 2-0, weathered the storm until the 77th minute when Argentine striker Claudio Bieler, taking to a flick-on header from C.J. Sapong, fired a right-footed shot past Joe Bendik to cut the lead.

It was a nail-biting finish for home fans as Kansas City stormed the Toronto end and Bendik made a fine reflex save off Bieler in the dying minutes to preserve the victory. They then had to endure five minutes of stoppage time that saw Graham Zusi fire a shot over the Toronto crossbar.

Bendik also had to parry a Zusi free kick with time running down. Zusi had one more dead ball chance but KC couldn't capitalize.

To a man, returning Toronto FC veterans Jeremy Hall, Richard Eckersley and captain Darren O'Dea agreed that last year's team would not have not won this game, more likely cracking under the pressure.

For Eckersley, the difference this season is that players all know their roles. And that of the man next to them.

For O'Dea, it's also about quality and believing in your teammate.

"We're a lot stronger," said the Irish international, celebrating his first league win as a Toronto FC player. "And I think it's partly (because) when you're looking at someone, you think you back yourself because you think your mate's going to do a job."

That wasn't the case last season, he suggested.

"It was just because it was young players, they kind of go into their shell a little bit. But here we've got characters now that stand big and tall."

As a result, Toronto held out against one of the superior teams in MLS.

"We can take a lot out of this win," said defender Danny Califf.

Califf, an MLS veteran who joined the club in the off-season, says he can see a change in Toronto FC's culture.

"The first step in that process is learning how not to lose," he said. "And I think we've shown through pre-season and certainly (today), we've taken a step in that right direction."

Toronto (1-1-0) looked bright from the beginning, with Earnshaw full of energy and newly acquired English winger John Bostock showing real quality on the wing.

It was the first MLS regular-season game on the artificial turf at Rogers Centre, although Toronto FC has played CONCACAF Champions League and friendlies there before.

Saturday's crowd of 25,991 was a far cry from the raucous, streamer-throwing 47,658 who jammed the dome last March for a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final with David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

But they had something to cheer early when Earnshaw punished a Kansas City defensive gaffe courtesy of a poor pass by centre back Matt Besler across goal. Defensive partner Aurelien Collin couldn't get to the ball before Earnshaw nipped in and fired a shot past Nielsen in the third minute for his first goal as a member of Toronto FC.

Credit Toronto's Hogan Ephraim for putting pressure on Besler, who was making his 100th MLS start.

The goal was early vindication for Nelsen, who has been preaching pressure from his players when the other team has the ball.

Toronto made it 2-0 in the 21st minute via an Earnshaw penalty after Bostock, after a couple of stepovers, was chopped down by Paulo Nagamura during a nifty run through traffic in the penalty box. O'Dea had found Bostock with an accurate long ball as three Toronto attackers ran at KC.

There was contact but Bostock went down theatrically to seal the deal.

"He draws players towards him," Nelsen said of the 21-year-old Bostock. "He's technically very good. I think he excites the crowd as well. He's got the ability for a little bit of trickery and there's always an end-product to it, whether it be a foul or a shot or something."

Earnshaw drove the penalty shot into the corner of the net before celebrating with a front somersault capped by something out of a bullfighter's playbook, as if sweeping a cape to his side.

He called it his Matador celebration, saying it dates back to his Nottingham Forest days.

"I do that every now and then," he said. "Just watch out, it might be different every time."

Earnshaw is the only player to record a hat trick in every professional division in England, including the FA Cup and League Cup. The Welsh striker came close to adding MLS to that list in only his second game in North America.

He admitted he was thinking about it when he stepped up to take the penalty for his second goal.

"Straight away I was thinking hat trick," he said with a laugh. "I was a bit disappointed because we just took so much pressure for the rest of the game that it didn't give me a chance to do that."

The visitors looked better organized in the second half, coming at Toronto but failed to crack the home defence despite a string of corners and free kicks.

The game grew chippier as the visitors' frustration grew and there were several shoving matches.

"They were whining quite a bit, which I think is standard when things aren't going their way," said Califf.

There were seven yellow cards issued, four to Kansas City and three to Toronto. Five of the cautions came after the 75th minute.

"Absolutely a great performance by our side in the second half but unfortunately not enough, we gave it away in the first half with a very, very unacceptable and sloppy 45 minutes," said Nielsen. "It's very disappointing."

Ironically the game could have been played outdoors given sunny five-degree weather at kickoff. But it was scheduled for indoors given the long-range planning needed to stage the game.

South of the border, meanwhile, the Colorado Rapids home opener against the Philadelphia Union was put back a day to Sunday because of the threat of heavy snow.

Toronto FC players celebrate (Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)
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