TORONTO — What a difference a year makes.
Last June, Toronto FC was essentially out of the playoff race after another dreadful start to an ill-fated Major League Soccer campaign. Today, the Reds are in the thick of the playoff picture, they have several games in hand, and they’ve set themselves up nicely for a strong run in the second half of the season.
How about that?
Jermain Defoe netted his team-leading seventh goal of the MLS season on a warm Saturday evening to help TFC earn a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes before 22,591 fans at BMO Field.
With another three points in the bag, Toronto improves to 6-4-1, and enters the World Cup break riding a four-game unbeaten run (three wins) and sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
It wasn’t a dominating performance from Toronto, who has already equalled its win total from all of last season. It was efficient, though, as the Reds’ defence did an excellent job of containing San Jose’s attack. What TFC lacked in style, they more than made up in grit.
One of the criticisms of this team over the years has been its inability to grind out results and win ugly. They’re starting to do that under sophomore coach Ryan Nelsen — the mark of a true playoff contender.
They’re also closing out games. How many times have we watched the Reds concede a late goal, turning a win into a draw or a draw into a loss?
“A year ago, we wouldn’t have won this game. You can see the difference. We’re finishing off opponents,” defender Ashtone Morgan said.
Nelsen, however, was quick to remind folks in the post-match press conference that his side is a still a work in progress.
“We’re in a lovely position with 19 points from 11 games. We understand we’re in a nice position. But we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We have to improve in a lot of aspects,” Nelsen said.
He later added: “What I want Toronto FC to be is [a club who] when teams play us they have to earn it to win it, they have to play really well to beat us. And I think that’s starting to happen. That’s a good reputation to have.”
San Jose’s lineup featured three ex-TFC players: defender Ty Harden, midfielder Sam Cronin and forward Alan Gordon. The Earthquakes were missing key starters Chris Wondolowski (U.S.) and Victor Bernardez (Honduras), both away on World Cup duty.
Gilberto was named to Toronto’s original starting lineup, but the Brazilian injured himself in the warm-up and was scratched. He was replaced by Kyle Bekker, who started in central midfield alongside Collen Warner.
Another change saw Mark Bloom play at left fullback instead of Justin Morrow. Rookie Nick Hagglund started on the right side of defence. TFC was missing American midfielder Michael Bradley (World Cup) and defender Bradley Orr (hamstring injury).
Hagglund put in another stellar and poised performance, underlining why TFC traded up in January’s draft to select him with the tenth overall pick.
“We saw something, that fearlessness [in him]. That’ll get you a long way in life. We saw that when we interviewed him and when he played. … He’s progressing exactly how we dreamed he would,” Nelsen stated.
Hagglund was all smiles after the game as the press horde surrounded him in front of his locker.
“It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been fun to play with the guys, and what a great group. Nelsen has done nothing but great things, and has always encouraged me and put me in positions where I have to grow and learn. It’s been exciting,” Hagglund offered.
If TFC was feeling any ill effects of their midweek loss to Montreal in the Amway Championship final, they didn’t show it early on as they pressed San Jose right from the opening kickoff.
Hagglund produced two back-to-back scoring chances of the utmost quality, forcing a diving save from Earthquakes goalkeeper Jon Busch and then volleying a shot just wide of the far post.
Moments later the rookie defender drew a foul from Gordon inside the box. Defoe converted the ensuing penalty to give Toronto the lead after 27 minutes.
San Jose coach Mark Watson wasn’t impressed with the decision.
“I haven’t seen the replay so I don’t want to say too much about it but it looked a little soft from where we were sitting,” Watson said.
TFC’s well-organized defence didn’t allow San Jose to register a shot on target until the 64th minute.
Dominic Oduro, acquired by the Reds in a trade on Friday, came into the game moments later, and made a big first impression. The Ghanaian striker out-jumped Clarence Goodson for a long pass hoofed forward, forcing the San Jose defender to deliberately handle the ball. He was lucky not to be sent off as the last man back.
The Earthquakes pressed for the final 10 minutes. TFC’s defence held firm, and never looked to be in trouble.
“They have two big centre backs [Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry] and they are good in the air. Our guys had a tough time battling them all day. We had to find different avenues and we did a little better in the second half but it was not enough,” Cronin explained.
NOTES: San Jose leads the all-time series against Toronto with four wins and four draws in 11 meetings. Saturday marked the Reds’ first home win against the Earthquakes in six meetings… TFC’s next match is June 27, on the road versus the New York Red Bulls…