TORONTO – This year is all about making the playoffs for Toronto FC.
But even with the weight of the world on Ryan Nelsen’s shoulders—and make no mistake, his long-term future depends on qualifying for the post-season—TFC’s coach is not overlooking the club’s domestic cup competition commitments.
Jermain Defoe netted his fourth goal in five games on Wednesday, guiding TFC to a 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the opening leg of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals. Defoe also set up Michael Bradley’s goal in the 89th minute to seal the win for the Reds.
Substitute Kekuta Manneh pulled a crucial goal back in injury time to keep Vancouver alive in the series. A 2-0 TFC win would have given the Whitecaps a major hill to climb. As it stands, the Whitecaps only need a 1-0 victory in the return leg to move on to the final.
“It soured a pretty good performance,” Nelsen said of Manneh’s goal.
TFC can still advance to the final by earning a draw against their Major League Soccer rivals in next Wednesday's second leg in Vancouver.
“We have the advantage because we have the lead. ... But it’s up for grabs for both teams,” Nelsen admitted. He later added: “I was hoping we could end it tonight, but it’s game on.”
The winner of this series advances to the two-legged final (May 28 and June 4) versus the winner of the other semifinal between the Montreal Impact and FC Edmonton, who compete in the second-tier NASL.
This was a game of stark contrasts in terms of how the respective coaches approached it, with TFC looking to deliver the knockout punch and end the fight early, and Vancouver trying to stay on its feet through to the late rounds.
Nelsen fielded a strong starting lineup featuring all three of his designated players—Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto. The only significant change was backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who was playing in his first game of the season. Nick Hagglund was originally listed as a starter on Nelsen's official team sheet but he was a last minute scratch due to the flu. Mark Bloom took his place at right back.
Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit, starting goalkeeper David Ousted and designated players Pedro Morales and Matias Laba didn't dress, as coach Carl Robinson used a completely different starting 11 from last weekend's MLS win over San Jose.
Robinson went with a young starting lineup with an average age of just over 22 years, handing senior team debuts to goalkeeper Marco Carducci (17) and midfielder Bryce Alderson (20). Current youth academy players Marcos Bustos and Kianz Froese (both 18) also earned their debuts, while defender Christian Dean (21) was making only his second appearance.
“I’m really proud of the boys because we had a young team. But I want to give players opportunities because if you’re a senior player you’ve been in that (situation) where you just wait for that chance. I think tonight a lot of my young players grabbed the opportunity,” Robinson said.
Nelsen also heaped praise on Robinson’s young side.
“These games are awkward. I’ve played in lots of them in my time, when you play against a young team that wants to prove themselves to their coach. Boy, they were up for it tonight,” Nelsen offered.
With the tie still hanging in balance, Robinson maintains he won’t go with a more veteran-infused lineup in the return match.
“I’ll give my young players another opportunity because I think they deserve it after this battling performance,” Robinson said.
The young Whitecaps looked nervy and unsettled right from the start, and TFC took full advantage. Within the first three minutes, Defoe forced a smart save from Carducci from in close, and Bustos cleared Steven Caldwell’s header off the goal-line.
Gilberto squandered a glorious scoring chance when he headed a beautiful cross into the box from Issey Nakajima-Farran wide of the far post. The Brazilian made amends in the 28th minute when he played a lovely pass for Defoe who beat the offside trap and had all the time in the world before firing past Carducci.
Toronto continued to press and carve out scoring chances. But the Reds were nearly undone by a pretty Whitecaps passing play on the edge of the box just before half. Bendik rushed out to stop Russell Teibert's shot, and Doneil Henry tracked back to make a goal-line clearance on Nicolas Mezquida's rebound attempt.
That gave the Whitecaps some momentum, and they played with more purpose in the second half, leading to a much more even contest. Bendik came up big in the 75th minute, tipping Omar Salgado’s shot over the crossbar.
Toronto, though, wouldn't be denied. Defoe played a lovely pass for Bradley who finished off his lung-busting run into the box by firing home in the last minute of regulation time.
It proved to be an important strike after Manneh scored a scrappy goal off a deflection from a Salgado setup moments later.
NOTES: The winner of this tournament will serve as the lone Canadian representative in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League... Toronto won four Canadian championships in a row from 2009 to 2012. Montreal won last year and the inaugural competition in 2008. Vancouver finished runners-up the last five years and is vying for its first Canadian title... The Whitecaps return to MLS action on Saturday when they visit the Columbus Crew. TFC has this weekend off...