Fletcher on MLS: Finally, some relief for TFC

Kleberson scored on a free kick from 25 yards out in stoppage time, lifting the Philadelphia Union to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC. (CP/Chris Young)

TORONTO – Finally, a win.

Yes, maybe Toronto FC’s 2-1 road victory over last-place D.C. United on Saturday wasn’t the most impressive performance and was in large part down to playing an opponent with worse form and luck.

But nobody connected to TFC will be worried about that, instead enjoying the temporary relief that three points and a five point cushion from the bottom of the table brings.

In many ways the tale of this game was very different from what we’ve seen over the season so far, and not just the end result. First up was that the defence got its troubles out of the way early rather than leaving them for the final minutes.

Gale Agbossoumonde had a very rough start to his first match back, making very poor attempts at tackles on a couple of plays in the opening 30 minutes. The first saw Nick De Leon take advantage of the leg that Agbossoumonde left hanging, falling over to win the penalty; the second saw Lionard Pajoy easily go by him before shooting just wide.

Add in some giveaways in dangerous positions from a number of players and it really wasn’t a bright start. But as the game went on, TFC tightened up and this time there were no mental errors to gift D.C. a chance at the end.

Aside from individual mistakes, one thing that has caused TFC problems throughout the season is the way they’ve dropped back too much towards the end of the game, and giving the ball away cheaply and inviting the opposition to put pressure on them. There was no such passivity this time, as substitute Darel Russell came on and made sure D.C. couldn’t get comfortable, earning a booking for one very aggressive tackle and then getting away with an elbow that left Daniel Woolard bleeding. It was risky and if he had been sent off, it would have been another example to add to the litany of late game mental breakdowns, but that energy was just what TFC needed.

Who knows if that was exactly what Ryan Nelsen had in mind from Russell, but another of his subs, Jeremy Brockie for Robert Earnshaw, had a similar influence on the game. Yes, giving some more minutes would help Danny Koevermans get back into game fitness, but it wouldn’t have been helpful in this match and thankfully Nelsen learnt from his mistake against Philadelphia. Brockie’s energy was a more useful asset to help nail down the win.

Another welcome change was TFC actually scoring from set pieces, a combination of effective delivery and luck seeing the winning goal go in off Woolard. For the equaliser, Earnshaw did very well to out-jump and outmuscle Brandon McDonald as his header bounced off the post and in.

Earnshaw is a very streaky scorer and luck will always play a part. In that infamous Amway Championship game against Montreal, he had an early chance that hit the post and bounced out, and since then things haven’t quite fell for him, with chances snatched at and missed. That continued into this game as he had one very good chance, unmarked about 10 yards out and completely mishit it well over the bar. If getting that little bit of luck to see the ball bounce in off the post this time can set him off on another hot streak, then that will greatly help TFC’s chances of building some sort of momentum from this win.

Another positive was the play of the midfielders. Matias Laba and Jonathan Osorio again had good games, and though Jeremy Hall and Bobby Convey were less effective and overall there weren’t that many chances created, it appears TFC may have finally found themselves an effective midfield quarter, with some pieces of the puzzle finally fitting into place.

After previous games there’s been talk of bad luck, of TFC not getting what they deserve, and about playing well but not being able to finish things off. On Saturday, TFC finally received some luck. Hopefully the confidence boost from finally seeing out a win and not conceding a late goal can be carried over into the matches ahead.

If playing D.C. United is a gift that should be given to every struggling side, it’s perhaps unfortunate that TFC have to follow it up with a very tough fixture in Houston which will make building momentum difficult. That fixture will probably be a much more accurate barometer of just how competitive Toronto FC can be in relation to the rest of MLS.

Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.

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