Toronto FC shows signs of new life in season-opening draw at Cincinnati

Toronto FC's Richie Laryea is dispossessed by FC Cincinnati's Yuya Kubo during the first half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean/AP Photo)

Toronto FC, showing signs of new life under coach John Herdman, gave supporters something to cheer about in a 0-0 draw with FC Cincinnati in the teams’ MLS season opener Sunday.

The game at TQL Stadium was a first-against-worst matchup. But Toronto did not look outmatched against a side that finished 47 points above it last season. Cincinnati won the Supporters’ Shield with a league-best 20-5-9 record while Toronto (4-20-10) was mired at the bottom of the table.

The gap in the standings was not evident as TFC started well, stroking the ball around confidently. But Cincinnati came on in the latter stages of the first half, showing speed on the counter-attack after Toronto turnovers.

“All in all, we were resolute. We showed that fighting spirit,” said Herdman. “We stayed connected right to the end. So for me, it was a good start to the season. But still work to be done. A lot.”

Cincinnati outshot Toronto 17-8 (7-2 in shots on target) and had eight corners to Toronto’s three.

When Cincinnati threatened, goalkeeper Sean Johnson was up to the challenge and was rewarded with his 100th career shutout.

“It was quite a professional performance from the whole group collectively,” said captain Jonathan Osorio. “Ad I think a very good point won on the road.”

Osorio, leading out his hometown club after taking over for the retired Michel Bradley, had the logos of TFC supporter groups inscribed on the inside of his captain’s armband.

“I had a meeting with them before the season started and I just wanted to show them that I carry them with me onto the field,” he explained. “And that I am really one of them, being a hometown kid and a kid that used to sit in their section way back when.”

Toronto was without injured forwards Deandre Kerr and Jordan Perruzza, newly signed defender Nickseon Gomis and top draft pick Tyrese Spicer, who was with TFC II to get some playing time after being sidelined by a toe injury.

Fullback Richie Laryea, reacquired this week in a transfer from England’s Nottingham Forest, and newly signed centre-back Kevin Long both started. Prince Owusu got the start at forward between Italian stars Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne.

Long lined up between Raoul Petretta and Shane O’Neill, who won kudos from Herdman during the pre-season, in a back three. Honduran international Deybi Flores, another newcomer, started in midfield.

Flores is a destroyer, breaking up opposition attacks.

“He’s always on top of you,” said Osorio, who has faced Flores internationally. “He doesn’t let you breathe … He’s a dog in the middle of the field. He bites.”

For Cincinnati, the home opener fell in the middle of its Champions Cup tie with Jamaica’s Cavalier FC. Cincinnati won 2-0 in Jamaica on Thursday and is hosting the return leg Wednesday.

The game marked 2023 MVP Luciano (Lucho) Acosta’s 100th as Cincinnati captain.

Laryea went down in the third minute on the edge of the penalty box in contact with Obinna Nwobodo. Referee Jonathan Weiner initially awarded a penalty but changed his mind after watching a replay on the pitchside monitor at the advice of the video assistant referee.

Instead, TFC got a free kick at the edge of the box, with goalkeeper Roman Celentano acrobatically stopping Insigne’s set piece. At the other end, Johnson made a reflex fine save to parry a Corey Baird bicycle kick off a corner in the 15th minute.

Insigne exited in the 62nd minute, part of Herdman’s plan to conserve the 32-year-old Italian to avoid injury and overwork. Laryea came off in the 70th minute, favouring the back of his right leg.

For Herdman, it was only game No. 2 on the TFC sidelines and his first in charge away from BMO Field. While he took over the team on Oct. 1, he let assistant coach Terry Dunfield run the squad for two games so he could watch from a distance before taking over for the season finale, a 2-0 loss to visiting Orlando.

Despite the improved showing, TFC still has won just one of its last 19 games (1-18-0) in all competitions. And it has not won from home since Aug. 27, 2022, when it triumphed 2-0 at Charlotte FC.

Toronto’s goalless drought away from home now stands at 889 minutes since Kerr scored in a 2-1 loss at New England on June 24, 2023. 

TFC’s last goal anywhere came Sept. 30 at BMO Field by Osorio in a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati. Toronto has been blanked for the 406 minutes since.

Sunday’s game was to be played with replacement officials in charge after the Professional Soccer Referees Association rejected a tentative agreement with the Professional Referees Organization, which then locked out the officials.

Toronto plays at New England next Sunday before returning to BMO Feld for the March 9 home opener against Charlotte.

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