CHICAGO — Toronto FC leaves Chicago with three points and a huge sigh of relief.
Alex Bono made a club-record 13 saves and Toronto got goals from Yeferson Soteldo and Nick DeLeon, hanging on for a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday that extended its unbeaten record under interim coach Javier Perez to four games.
After going behind in the second minute, Chicago roared back and attacked a makeshift Toronto defence with Bono forced to make save after save. The teams exchanged late goals to make for a tense finale, with the Fire looking for the equalizer.
Chicago outshot Toronto 31-8 (14-3 in shots on target), fired in 41 crosses to Toronto's two and had a 13-1 edge in corners as TFC lived dangerously at Soldier Field.
"We bent a lot," said Bono, whose club record for wins in all competitions now stands at 56. "We were bending, bending and bending but we really didn't break."
Bono's career-high 13 saves erased the club single-game mark of 10 set twice by Greg Sutton (in April 2007 at Chivas USA and August 2008 at Colorado Rapids). While the Toronto 'keeper was sharp, Chicago's finishing often left something to be desired.
"That's the game sometimes … I think they did everything right but find the back of the net," said Chicago assistant coach Frank Klopas, referencing his team.
Chicago head coach Raphael Wicky is away in Switzerland attending to a family health matter.
Toronto (3-8-4) went ahead after 90 seconds with its high press forcing a turnover deep in Chicago territory. The ball went to Ralph Priso who slid it towards Tsubasa Endoh. His touch was heavy but Soteldo was the first to reach the ball in the box and he poked it into the far corner of the goal for his second of the season.
"The tough one for us is coming out and giving (up) a bad goal right way," said Klopas. "So you're under the gun already. But I felt it was tremendous response by the team. We pushed, we never lost confidence."
Soteldo continues to be Toronto's main attacking weapon.
When star Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco ruled the roost in Toronto, TFC's best strategy was simple — Give the ball to Seba. Now good things happen when Soteldo gets the ball.
"That guy can dribble through traffic on (Highway) 401," Bono said.
The five-foot-three Venezuelan has scored or assisted on five of Toronto’s last seven goals (two goals, three assists),
DeLeon padded the lead in the 76th minute, finishing off a move by Soteldo and Patrick Mullins, beating veteran goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth from a tight angle.
Chicago (3-9-3) replied a minute later with Alvaro Medran taking advantage of Toronto failing to clear a cross, pivoting to fire a shot that finally beat Bono.
With 33-year-old Justin Morrow a late scratch, ailing Brazilian Auro on the bench and Richie Laryea and Kemar Lawrence away at the Gold Cup, Toronto was a without a specialist fullback. Luke Singh, a centre back, and Mark Delgado, a midfielder, filled in with Chicago often taking advantage on the flank.
Chicago fired in 22 crosses in the first half alone.
Toronto's defensive woes mounted when Singh was forced to leave in the 81st minute with what appeared to be leg cramps.
Both teams have been trying to dig themselves out of an early-season hole. Chicago was 12th in the Eastern Conference and Toronto 13th going into weekend play.
Toronto now has two wins and two ties under Perez, who took over after Chris Armas was fired July 4 with the team mired in a six-game losing streak at 1-8-2.
"At the end all that matters is the three points that we bring back home," said Perez, a native of Spain. "And we keep adding points to our (total)."
For Chicago, it was a second straight disappointing result. The Fire led visiting D.C. United 2-0 midweek only to concede goals in the 82nd and 87th minute for a 2-2 tie.
Chicago had lost just once in its five previous games (2-1-2) after a 1-7-1 start to the season.
Perez made two changes to the team that tied the Red Bulls 1-1 on Wednesday with Priso and Singh coming in for Auro, who limped off 18 minutes into the midweek game, and Morrow, who was pulled from the warmup.
Star striker Jozy Altidore, still working his way to match fitness after spending eight weeks on the outs with the club, started on the bench for the third straight game. He was introduced at halftime along with Mullins.
Chicago was unchanged from the starting 11 that settled for a midweek 2-2 tie with D.C. United after conceding goals in the 82nd and 87th minute.
Toronto is now unbeaten in 12 straight matches (9-0-3) against Chicago dating back to 2015. The Fire had gone unbeaten in 12 meetings (6-0-6) before that, from September 2010 through April 2015.
TFC was without four players at the Gold Cup: Jonathan Osorio and Laryea (Canada), Eriq Zavaleta (El Salvador) and Lawrence (Jamaica). Forward Ayo Akinola had also been with Canada but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Canada's 1-0 loss to the U.S. last Sunday.
Fire captain Francisco Calvo is also at the Gold Cup with Costa Rica.
Toronto hosts Nashville SC next Sunday at BMO Field.
It will be interesting to see when DeLeon returns. He was vocal earlier this season about not getting the COVID-19 vaccine so he'll have to undergo quarantine when he returns home unless he has changed his tune.
Perez deflected a post-game question about DeLeon's status.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2021.