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Toronto FC beats semi-pro side CS Saint-Laurent in Canadian Championship

Toronto FC Deandre Kerr Deandre Kerr - The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Nathan Goulet could hardly believe his eyes.

The 22-year-old CS Saint-Laurent defender remembers watching Federico Bernardeschi play in the UEFA Champions League for elite Italian club Juventus a few years ago.

On Wednesday night, they were face-to-face on the pitch, duelling in a 9,500-capacity stadium as Bernardeschi’s Toronto FC defeated the semi-pro Saint-Laurent 3-0 in the opening leg of their Canadian Championship quarterfinal.

"To see them in front of us today was a bit of a dream,” Goulet said of facing TFC. “Since we were young we've watched them, and today they're in front of us, on the same field, in Montreal, at the Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard."

Matty Longstaff blasted a shot past goalkeeper Kosta Maniatis into the top-right corner to open the scoring in the 50th minute.

Deandre Kerr scored in the 59th minute and Bernardeschi, who entered as a substitute in the second half, converted a cheeky free kick in the 76th as Toronto dampened Saint-Laurent’s Cinderella run.

Saint-Laurent upset Canadian Premier League side Halifax Wanderers FC 2-2 (5-3) in a penalty shootout last Thursday to set up the matchup against heavily favoured TFC of Major League Soccer.

The Ligue1 Quebec champions were the first team from the league to reach this stage of the competition.

An announced attendance of 6,482 fans — including some who lit flares in the stands — cheered with every Saint-Laurent touch and clearance on a rainy, 9 C night.

"What a performance by Saint-Laurent, I thought they were outstanding tonight," Toronto head coach John Herdman said. "Hell of an atmosphere. Loved it, it felt like a proper cup match."

Many Saint-Laurent players juggle school and up to two jobs while training four times a week.

Meanwhile, Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Bernardeschi earned US$15.4 million and $6.3 million, respectively, last season for Toronto.

Despite the lopsided wages, Saint-Laurent held its opponent at bay in the first half. Toronto dominated the match with 66 per cent of possession, but only had a 7-6 edge in shots on target.

“We're very proud of the effort that (our players) put in,” Saint-Laurent head coach Nicholas Razzaghi said. “They didn't come into this challenge scared, they came into the challenge with a lot of confidence and courage and I think everyone was able to see that tonight.

“If we had guys who didn't work or go to school five times a week and practised football full-time, we tell ourselves everything is possible."

After Longstaff opened the scoring, Saint-Laurent’s Loïc Kwemi pressured with an attempt that appeared to hit a defender’s hand in the box but went uncalled. Toronto instantly pounced on the counterattack and Kerr scored with a shot off the post.

Razzaghi lamented the missed call post-game, especially in a match where his side had little margin for error.

"Those are moments that change games and we're not in a situation where we can afford to get these things missed,” he said. "We for sure feel hard done by by the call. We all believe it was a hand ball.

“In a 1-1 situation with the momentum, anything could have happened.”

The return leg is May 21 at BMO Field and the winner will meet either MLS’s CF Montreal or the CPL's Forge FC in the semifinal. The two teams are tied 1-1 on aggregate after the first leg.

TFC made eight changes from the starting 11 that beat FC Dallas 3-1 on Saturday. Captain and longtime Canadian national team player Jonathan Osorio headlined the starters.

Toronto dispatched semi-pro side Simcoe County Rovers of League1 Ontario 5-0 to advance to the quarterfinal.

Goulet prevented Toronto from taking an early lead with a clearance from the goal line in the seventh minute. Osorio shot towards an open net after Maniatis dived to make a save, only for Goulet to deny it.

Maniatis stopped Kerr on a partial break in the 13th minute as the crowd erupted.

"It was crazy,” Goulet said. “In the first 10-15 minutes we saw that the crowd was filled to the max and that gave us a boost."

Saint-Laurent then started putting the pressure on. Oussama Boughanmi sent a free kick from a dangerous area over the bar in the 23rd minute.

Kwemi had another chance from the edge of the box in the 41st, but also sailed it over the net.

The home side pushed for an equalizer late as captain Wesley Wandje had a golden opportunity for Saint-Laurent but couldn’t beat Luka Gavran.

"A lot for Saint-Laurent to be proud of tonight,” Herdman said. “They pushed us, they pushed us hard."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.