• New England Revolution 2 (Gil 9’, 52’), Toronto FC 3 (Akinola 14’, Hamilton 45’, Altidore 80’)
• Altidore nets winner for TFC in MLS home opener
• Akinola scores 1st MLS goal; Chapman collects 2 assists
TORONTO – Greg Vanney was true to his word.
In a lengthy interview with Sportsnet earlier this week, Toronto FC’s coach admitted that while competition for playing time is fierce, he is committed to giving his young players and those on the fringes of the starting 11 more opportunities this year.
Vanney went with the youngsters on Sunday night in the team’s MLS home opener, and it paid big dividends as TFC earned a 3-2 win over the New England Revolution before an announced crowd of 23,271 fans at BMO Field.
TFC’s coach gave rare starts to midfielder Jay Chapman (25), and forwards Jordan Hamilton (23) and Ayo Akinola (19), and they repaid their coach’s faith. Akinola and Hamilton both scored, while Chapman, starting in place of the injured Marky Delgado (minor hamstring issue) tallied a pair of assists.
“For Jay, he’s not a young player anymore, so he has to establish himself this year as one of the primary guys. For Jordan and Ayo, they’re continuing to battle for their minutes, so it was nice for them to compete the way they did and play well,” Vanney told reporters after the game.
More good news for Toronto was the return of veteran forward Jozy Altidore, who came on as a second-half substitute following off-season ankle surgery. It was his first action since a home game against Vancouver last October, and Altidore made up for lost time by scoring the game winner.
“To be able to come [off the bench] and score the winner in a game like this where we did everything we could to get the three points, it’s a great feeling,” Altidore said.
Altidore also heaped praise on Akinola and Hamilton, and said he’s seen genuine growth from both young forwards on the training ground.
“I kick their ass every day, and they’ll be the first to tell you… For me, [Hamilton] is already one of the best Canadian strikers, if not the best, but he needs to show that, and he knows that. With Ayo, you saw glimpses from him last year, and he’s made huge leaps this year already,” Altidore said.
Captain Michael Bradley was equally complimentary in his assessment of the play of Akinola and Hamilton.
“They’ve both made big progress, and it’s not always been easy for them. … This isn’t an easy club to play for as a [youngster]. There’s pressure, there’s a lot of good players, they have to deal with me – and I can be hard on these guys sometimes. But I do it because I love them, and I know how much they have to give,” Bradley stated.
Like his side’s 3-1 road victory over Philadelphia on March 2 in their season opener, Vanney called Sunday’s performance a “mentality win,” attributing the result to the team’s grit and fighting spirit in coming from behind, something the Reds were sorely lacking last season when they failed to make the playoffs.
“I don’t know if we [win a game like this] last year,” Vanney said in reference to the Reds’ disastrous 2018 MLS campaign.
A fast-paced first half saw the teams trade goals in the opening 15 minutes. New England’s Carles Gil converted from the penalty spot after teammate Teal Bunbury was brutally hacked down from behind by Toronto defender Chris Mavinga.
Akinola equalized minutes later with a spectacular individual effort. The youngster took a pass from Chapman and quickly spun away from a pair of defenders, and then took on three more New England players inside the box before finishing with an exquisite, low curler that nestled inside the far post. The goal was Akinola’s first of his MLS career – the 19-year-old made only four substitute appearances totalling 45 minutes in his debut season last year.
“It’s a dream come true,” Akinola said.
The Reds took the lead just before halftime. Akinola’s raking ball released Chapman down the left flank, and he played a smart ball across the box for Hamilton to tap home.
“Safe to say this is up there with one of my best birthdays,” said Hamilton, who turned 23 on Sunday.
Chapman appeared to be offside when he received Akinola’s pass, but the goal stood upon VAR review. That did little to appease Gil, who had to be held back by his teammates from getting in the face of the referee after the halftime whistle.
Gil was issued a yellow card for dissent, but the Spaniard exacted revenge after the restart when his shot from inside the box deflected off TFC defender Auro Jr. and beat goalkeeper Alex Bono. Even with the deflection, Toronto centre-back Drew Moor should have cleared Gil’s shot – instead, it found its way into the back of the net. Gil celebrated by mockingly making the VAR hand signal that referees make when they review a play.
The match appeared to be headed for a stalemate, but Altidore, who replaced Hamilton midway through the second half, smashed home a one-timer off a great ball played across the box by Justin Morrow with 10 minutes remaining in regulation. It was Bradley’s brilliant pass over the top of New England’s defence that sent Morrow scampering down the left flank before he set up Altidore.
Altidore credited Akinola for his run off the ball that opened up the space for him to exploit on the goal.
“The goal happens because of Ayo. He made a fantastic run at the near post … If he doesn’t clear that space, there’s no tap in [for me],” Altidore said.
NOTES: Toronto FC owns a 7-5-1 all-time record in home openers… TFC’s next match is at home vs. New York City FC on March 29 when new DP signing Alejandro Pozuelo is expected to make his debut for the Reds… New England leads the all-time series against Toronto with 13 wins and nine draws in 30 meetings…