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Comeback win in Orlando shows Toronto FC is on the right track under Herdman

Toronto FC celebrates Toronto FC celebrates - The Canadian Press

The fun has only just started, says Toronto FC coach John Herdman.

At 5-4-1 after 10 games, it's hard not to agree. There are positive signs in the present and real hope for the future for a Toronto team that finished last in Major League Soccer last season at 4-20-10.

The latest evidence of the turnaround came Saturday when goals by Tyrese Spicer and Prince Owusu, in the 87th and 90th minute respectively, lifted Toronto to a dramatic 2-1 comeback win at Orlando City.

The victory moved Toronto into fourth place in the Eastern Conference — five points behind Inter Miami with a game in hand.

The players have hit their target after the first 10 games, Herdman said.

"We're right in touch with that top four. So I'm proud of them. They committed tonight," he said after the game. "The pre-game conversations, they made some commitments as a collective and individually. And watching them live that was a proud moment as a coach.

"I mean hey, we're 10 games into the season. We haven't won the FA Cup or Champions League but we're going to celebrate and enjoy this moment," he added with a smile. "Because it's one of the first times, I think, this team's come back for a long time and won."

In fact, it marked Toronto's first league win after conceding the first goal since a 2-1 decision over the Philadelphia Union on April 16, 2022. TFC had gone 0-35-4 since then when scored on first.

It also represented Toronto's first victory over Orlando (2-4-3) since 2019, ending an eight-game winless run (0-6-2).

With the last few seasons leaving plenty of scar tissue at TFC, Herdman has set about changing the culture.

"Since John has come into the organization, I think he's been very clear about what he wants to achieve and that's definitely spread throughout the team," said veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

The much-ballyhooed "brotherhood," so often cited during Herdman's time in charge of the Canadian men, is still a theme. But these days Herdman talks of the collective and focuses more on mentality.

Unlike his time with Canada, Herdman can work on that on a daily basis. And he gets to do it for an organization free of the shackles he had at financially challenged Canada Soccer.

Herdman has shown a ruthless side, chiding his team for only scoring five goals in a mid-week 5-0 Canadian Championship romp over the semi-pro Simcoe County Rovers. Herdman wanted to erase the mark set in a 6-1 cup win over Montreal in 2009.

It was not the most gracious look. But he raised the goal-scoring 'failure' ahead of the Orlando game.

"We felt like a nearly man with that goal (of setting the record) we had against Simcoe," Herdman said. "And I challenged the group after the Simcoe game, you know, the nearly man is not where we want to be."

Herdman appears to have knit together what was a divided camp.

With Lorenzo Insigne sidelined by a hamstring injury, fellow Italian star Federico Bernardeschi — portrayed in some quarters last season as a troublemaker — has won kudos for his attitude and work ethic under Herdman. While the former Juventus man has yet to score this season, he has been a sparkplug.

Bernardeschi triggered both goals Saturday after Duncan McGuire put Orlando ahead in the 37th minute.

Bernardeschi's long ball found Kobe Franklin on the right of the penalty box and his cross was headed in by Spicer in the 87th minute. Three minutes later, Bernardeschi beat two Orlando defenders to deliver a cross that Owusu headed home for his fifth goal in four games across all competitions.

"To be honest, I can't even find words to describe how important he has been to this group," Johnson said of Bernardeschi.

"He's really taken a responsibility on his shoulder in a big way," he added.

Herdman's substitutions were spot on Saturday.

Franklin, who was sensational mid-week against Simcoe, and Spicer both delivered off the bench. As did newly acquired winger Derrick Etienne Jr., whose run to goal occupied two defenders and freed up Owusu for the game-winner.

Owusu has also stepped up.

Showing an ability to be in the right place at the right time, the German forward has five of Toronto's 11 league goals this season, adding another in cup play.

The six-foot-three Owusu attracted a crowd on Toronto's first goal, allowing Spicer to ghost in behind him.

While Toronto is still missing the injured Insigne, Richie Laryea, Brandon Servania and Shane O’Neill, Herdman is looking forward to the next segment of the season, which he calls "the chaos of the double weeks" with both mid-week and weekend games.

"Our squad is going to get tested … But the fun has only just started."


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2024