VANCOUVER – Moments before kickoff, Whitecaps fans in the south end of BC Place Stadium brandished a banner that read “TFC like KFC—The original recipe for disaster.”
In the end, though, it was the Whitecaps who had their goose cooked—you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor.
Toronto FC fought back to earn a 3-1 win over the Whitecaps on Saturday evening in the MLS season opener for both clubs, with Jozy Altidore scoring a brace for the visitors. The highlights of the game were Sebastian Giovinco’s wonderful assist on Altidore’s opener, and the American forward’s cheeky Francesco Totti-inspired cucchiaio (a chipped penalty attempt) in the 90th minute that sealed the win for Toronto.
After the game, Altidore admitted he had never attempted an audacious cucchiaio before in his career.
“That was my first one. But it’s a little bit easier taking them when you’re up 2-1,” Altidore quipped.
Having began his career with the New York Red Bulls before moving to Europe, Altidore was making his return to MLS on Saturday following an ill-fated spell with Sunderland that saw him score just one goal in 42 games over two years. Against the Whitecaps, he impressed not only with his goal-scoring touch, but also with his tenacity and commitment to tracking back deep to help out his defence.
“I thought Jozy played like a monster. He showed you what he could do, so anyone who questions whether he can score goals, I think he proved something today,” TFC coach Greg Vanney told reporters.
As for Giovinco, the Italian didn’t score and he got off to a slow start. Soon, though, he was causing Vancouver’s defence all kinds of problems with his deft ball control and mazy runs towards the 18-yard box.
“I think he really found the game in the second half and had a much bigger impact,” Vanney stated.
This was the Reds’ first victory in three visits to Vancouver, and it was especially sweet. Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson had been taking subtle jabs at TFC in the days leading up to this one, referencing the Reds’ “big-money” moves this off-season.
No doubt the announced sellout crowd of 21,000 spectators were left gobsmacked after witnessing the Whitecaps out-run and out-play TFC in the opening half, only to see the home side look completely flat and bereft of ideas for the final 45 minutes.
“First half, there was really only one team in it. We could’ve scored a couple goals, didn’t; scored one goal. Second half, I think they used their experience to keep the ball, they’ve got good players, and we just didn’t react right in the second half, so we took it on the chin,” Robinson said.
TFC played a high defensive line to start the contest and the Whitecaps took full advantage of the Reds’ lack of speed, especially on the right, burning defenders Warren Creavalle and Steven Caldwell a number of times.
In the eighth minute, Canadian Russell Teibert played a lovely low cross from the right flank to a wide-open Octavio Rivero inside the six-yard box. But the Uruguayan forward couldn’t get the ball out of his feet and the glorious scoring chance went begging. It will go down as THE miss of the MLS season.
“I’m not sure how he missed it but I’ll take it because it kept us alive and kept us in the game while we were getting ourselves situated,” Vanney offered.
Five minutes later another ball played out of midfield found its way through Creavalle and Caldwell for Kekuta Manneh, whose close range shot was blocked by TFC keeper Joe Bendik.
Rivero made amends for his earlier gaffe with a precise finish in the 19th minute. Pa-Modou Kah played a lovely pass over the top for Rivero to run onto and the Uruguayan coolly slotted it between Bendik’s legs.
TFC was being run off the park and it looked as though the game was getting away from them. But then came a moment of genius from the fleet-footed Giovinco. The Italian turned away from his marker—Matias Laba, one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS—in a very tight space before feeding an exquisite pass for Altidore. The American forward did well to keep his composure as he rounded Whitecaps’ keeper David Ousted before scoring into an empty net in the 32nd minute.
The goal came totally against the run of play, and was owed mostly to the vision and technique of Giovinco.
“It’s easy playing with great players, and he’s a top player,” Altidore said of his Italian teammate. “He came along strong as the game went on. When he plays at the highest level this team is going to be even better.”
Vanney abandoned his 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations from the first half, and adopted a diamond-shaped 4-4-2 setup after the halftime break. It paid dividends as Caldwell and Creavalle weren`t exposed and had defensive cover on the right side. With Vancouver no longer able to press and play quickly down that flank, Toronto began to dictate the pace of the match.
“We were very reactive (in the first half). We weren’t recognizing what they were doing, which was receiving the ball, turning and putting the ball behind us. We were very slow to respond and anticipate,” Vanney admitted.
“Second half, we did a better job of recognizing that and taking away the space behind us, so (Vancouver) had to play in front of us a little bit. That allowed us time to get our midfield into the defending effort more and they became a lot more predictable for us.”
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In the 59th minute, the Whitecaps allowed Benoit Cheyrou too much time on the ball, and the Frenchman threaded a through-ball for Justin Morrow down the left. Morrow played a perfect low pass into the six-yard box for Robbie Findley to power home to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.
Toronto successfully killed off the game after that, as the Reds’ defence, far more organized than in the opening 45 minutes, allowed the Whitecaps plenty of possession without conceding any dangerous scoring opportunities.
“Early on they caused us trouble with their speed, athleticism and mobility. But I thought once we got a grip on that we handled the game pretty professionally and pretty well,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said.
Late in the game, Kah swung out his leg and brought down Altidore after Collen Warner played a great, high ball into the box. Altidore stepped up to the 12-yard spot and pulled of a devilish penalty attempt that handcuffed Ousted.
NOTES: The Whitecaps had won all four of their previous season openers, including wins over Toronto in 2011 and 2013… TFC leads the all-time MLS series against the Whitecaps with three victories and two draws in six meetings… Saturday was the only league meeting between the teams this season… Toronto continues its seven-game stretch on the road to open the season next Saturday when it visits the Columbus Crew… Vancouver’s next two games are also on the road: March 14 vs the Chicago Fire and March 21 vs Orlando City.