TORONTO — After shuffling his roster, and seeing it stumble to a 3-1 loss to visiting Houston last time out, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney went back to his regulars and collected three points with a 2-1 win over slumping FC Cincinnati on Saturday.
Toronto dominated the first half and saw the expansion visitors try just one shot on goal — and that 37th-minute attempt was off-target. But 60 per cent possession and an 8-1 edge in shots (2-0 in shots on target) only translated into a 1-0 lead at the half before an announced crowd of 25,765 at BMO Field.
A terrific strike by Jozy Altidore — his fourth goal in four games — in the 50th minute made it 2-0. The U.S. international capped off a counter-attack, taking a pass from Nick DeLeon and curling a terrific right-footed shot from outside the penalty box past a diving Przemyslaw Tyton.
It was Altidore’s ninth goal in 13 games this season. And it seemed to spark Cincinnati, which quickly answered the bell before an announced crowd of 25,765 at BMO Field.
Emmanuel Ledesma cut the lead to 2-1 in the 58th minute with a low, hard shot that beat Quentin Westberg. But Toronto held out for the victory. With Eastern conference rivals New England and Montreal both winning, the three points were needed — even if Toronto remains one point out of the final playoff spot in the East.
"Things are getting real tight and every point is vital," said captain Michael Bradley.
Vanney was happy with the result but thought his team, which finished with just three shots on target in total, could have made it easier on itself.
"We should have taken more out of the first half," he said.
Cincinnati made changes in the second half, man-marking holding midfielder Michael Bradley and pushing players high. It worked, with the visitors outshooting Toronto 10-2 in the second half (4-1 in shots on target).
Toronto eventually switched to a back three, with Chris Mavinga joining Omar Gonzalez and Drew Moor in the backline. Gonzalez continues to be force at centre back.
Nick DeLeon opened the scoring for Toronto in the 16th minute, using his head to flick home Gonzelez’s header off an Alejandro Pozuelo corner past the six-foot-five Tyton. It was the fifth of the season for DeLeon.
Toronto (9-9-5) has now won three of its last four after picking up just seven of a possible 33 points in its previous 11 outings (1-6-4).
Saturday’s game was the first of eight straight against Eastern opposition for Toronto.
Only Westberg, DeLeon and fullback Justin Morrow retained their place from the starting 11 beaten by Houston, which had lost its last eight road games. Pozuelo and Moor returned from injury and Vanney had the luxury of having Mavinga, Jonathan Osorio and Brazilian fullback Auro on the bench.
Vanney hinted after the game that his days of roster rotation are over.
"You won’t see a lot of switching as we start to play week-to-week. There won’t be a lot of interchange of guys," he said.
DeLeon called the loss to Houston "a good wakeup call."
"It was nice to have a full week of training without a midweek game to kind of get everybody on the same page," he said.
For the visitors, it was another painful night at the office. Cincinnati (5-16-2) has lost three straight, nine of its last 11 (2-9-0) and has taken just 10 of the 57 points available in its last 19 games (3-15-1). Mired at the bottom of the standings, the visitors have the worst defence in MLS having leaked 53 goals.
Cincinnati’s road record fell to 2-10-1.
Change has been a constant for the expansion side. Saturday marked its 22nd different lineup of the season.
But interim coach Yoann Damet saw positives in the second-half fightback.
"I think it’s a good example of what the team is capable of," he said. "The team is capable of great things like tonight. We created problems for Toronto. Playing on the road is never easy, especially Toronto is a tough place to play, so playing with the character that we showed tonight is a big satisfaction."
There was some bad blood in the 61st minute when Kendall Waston’s scathing tackle felled Bradley. Waston was yellow-carded on the play. Bradley downplayed the incident afterwards, saying only "It’s football."
The first-ever meeting of the clubs marked a return for Cincinnati defender Nick Hagglund, who was drafted by Toronto and spent five seasons here before being traded to his home town team in January.
There were hugs all around prior to warmup as Hagglund caught up with former teammates and Toronto officials. The 26-year-old defender did not get the start, however, with Damet giving Dutch defender Maikel van der Werff his first start, alongside Waston.
Newly signed Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo will have to wait for his TFC debut. Listed as questionable with a quad strain, he did not dress.
Both teams are back in action next Saturday. Toronto is at the New York Red Bulls while Cincinnati hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps.