TORONTO – Disgust and embarrassment.
Those were just some of the emotions felt by Toronto FC players last July following a 2-1 road loss to San Jose, a match that saw the Earthquakes have two players sent off for red-card offences. Even though TFC had a two-man advantage for most of the second half, it couldn’t break down the ‘Quakes, and it suffered one of its most humbling losses in club history.
Toronto hosts San Jose on Saturday at BMO Field in the first meeting between the teams since that fateful night in California. TFC coach Greg Vanney insists he isn’t using the memory of that loss as motivation ahead of this weekend’s game. But the sour taste remains in the mouths of some who played in that contest.
“I remember thinking we wanted to throw away the game tape after the game. … Not enough ideas, not enough penetration. They sat back everybody in their box, and we gave up a very soft goal on the counter,” defender Drew Moor said in an interview with Sportsnet.
Like Moor, midfielder Jonathan Osorio also started for TFC on that night, and recalled the mood in the locker-room afterwards was pretty sombre.
“I just remember after that game we were very disgusted with ourselves, and we knew we had to be much better” Osorio told Sportsnet.
San Jose opened the scoring in the 30th minute through former TFC forward Quincy Amarikwa. The Reds received a boost just before half time when Earthquakes midfielder Anibal Godoy was shown a straight red card for a late challenge on Tsubasa Endoh. Toronto tied things up a minute later, as Justin Morrow tapped home from in close.
Endoh was on the receiving end of another rash challenge, this time from Alberto Quintero in the 53rd minute, and the Earthquakes were reduced to nine men. Toronto couldn’t make use of the advantage, though, and it was San Jose who broke the deadlock in the 70th minute on the counter attack – Simon Dawkins went on a run and unleashed a shot near the top of the box that handcuffed Alex Bono and somehow eluded the Reds goalkeeper.
“We took a deep look inside of ourselves after that game. We were a bit embarrassed, but we knew that wasn’t who we were, and we knew that wasn’t our character, we knew that wasn’t acceptable. It wasn’t good enough in our locker-room,” Moor said.
It also wasn’t good enough for angry TFC fans, many of whom took to social media demanding Vanney be fired. Toronto was in the playoff mix at that time, and there were still plenty of games left in the regular season. But the loss in San Jose was the low point of the campaign, and it raised questions about the legitimacy of the team’s MLS Cup aspirations.
As it just so happened, that became the turning point for Toronto FC, and not just for the 2016 season.
TFC went unbeaten in its next seven games (with six wins), using the momentum to go on a magical playoff run to last year’s MLS Cup final. The Reds have only lost five league games since their visit to San Jose last summer, currently sit in first place in MLS with 56 points, and are poised to break the league record for most points in a season (68, held by the 1998 L.A. Galaxy).
“Our numbers since then have been pretty good. We haven’t lost a lot of league games. That’s where we are now, and we’re a very different team than we were at that point last season,” Moor offered.
Indeed, a quick look at that San Jose game shows just how much things have changed for Toronto.
The Reds employed a four-man defence with Josh Williams (no longer with the team) and Moor in the middle, and a diamond-shaped midfield. Bono was filling in for an injured Clint Irwin at the time, but has since taken over the No. 1 goalkeeper’s job. Vanney, on occasion, has returned to this formation, but the majority of the times he uses his preferred 3-5-2, with Morrow and Steven Beitashour deployed further up the field as wing backs – they played on the left and right sides of the defence against the Earthquakes.
TFC knew it was a poor result and performance, but nobody was pushing the panic button. There were no grandiose speeches made by players or coaches – just a quiet and collective realization that they weren’t good enough on the night, and the need to quickly nip things in the bud.
“It could have been a defining moment in our season, but I don’t think we really looked at it that way. I think we looked at it more like, ‘This was a bad one; let’s put this one behind us.’ I don’t remember any speeches that this was a defining moment for us. I just remember realizing that we couldn’t let that loss snowball into two or three more negative results,” Moor said.
Osorio admitted that in some ways the loss in San Jose turned out to be blessing in disguise.
“After that the season changed. That [seven-game unbeaten] run was what really got us going. It was a turning point, but at the same we learned from it and we hope to never let something like that happen again,” Osorio offered.
“One hundred per cent, we’re so much different than that team, so much better. Even as good as we were last year, after that loss we’ve only grown and it’s lead us to being the position we’re in now.”