LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Toronto FC is looking dangerous at the MLS is Back Tournament, even with its US$6-million striker watching from the stands.
Filling in for star forward Jozy Altidore, Ayo Akinola upped his tournament total to five with a hat trick Thursday in Toronto’s 4-3 win over the Montreal Impact.
Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo has had a hand in each one of Akinola’s goals at the tournament, with five assists in two games.
Thursday’s win moved Toronto atop the Group C standings, at least for the night, with four points from two games, while the future looks bleak for pointless Montreal. Both teams wrap up group play Tuesday with Toronto facing New England and Montreal meeting D.C. United.
Captain Michael Bradley likes what he sees, but says there is more to come.
“It’s not been perfect. There’s still a lot that needs to improve, that needs to get better,” he said. “But four points from the first two games is still a good start.”
The top two teams in each of the six groups plus the four best third-place finishers advance to the round of 16.
It was another wild night involving Canadian teams at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex, although this time the fireworks were largely limited to the first half. San Jose rallied late Wednesday to edge the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-3.
Algerian international Saphir Taider made things interesting Thursday, converting his second penalty on the night in the 95th minute to cut Toronto’s lead to 4-3 after video review confirmed a Laurent Ciman handball.
Given Toronto had conceded two late goals in a 2-2 tie with New England — after a commanding opening 80 minutes — to open the tournament, it was another nervy finale. But this time Toronto stood tall.
“It was the first 90 (minutes) for a lot of the guys so we were a little bit tired, the legs were a little bit heavy,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. “But it was gutsy and (we showed) a lot of heart to get the result tonight.”
Richie Laryea also scored for Toronto. Honduran international Romell Quioto had the other Montreal goal.
Just 20, Akinola has turned heads at the tournament. The U.S. youth international had one goal in 12 games spread over the two previous seasons.
Vanney has long considered Akinola worth the wait.
“He has soft feet, he can hold things up but he’s so powerful and fast ? He’s gotten himself fit, he worked incredibly hard in the pre-season. He just looks like he loves playing soccer. And all of that is coming out in his performances.”
Akinola joins Tosaint Ricketts as the only TFC players to score two or more goals in consecutive MLS matches. Ricketts, now with the Whitecaps, did it in September 2017.
Bradley said after the New England game that centre backs are going to find out quickly that facing Akinola is a tough night at the office. The Impact defenders now know it.
Akinola’s first goal made it 2-1 in the 25th minute, capping off a slick nine-pass sequence that started back in the Toronto end when Omar Gonzalez headed away a Montreal cross to Laryea, who had to fight his way out of the corner.
Bradley eventually found Auro on the right flank and the Brazilian combined with Pablo Piatti and Pozuelo, who slid in a perfectly weighted low cross for Akinola to knock in.
His second came in the 37th minute with Akinola taking another perfect Pozuelo pass and outmuscling a defender before beating Clement Diop.
His third came in the 83rd minute, bundling aside a defender after taking a Nick DeLeon flick-on from a Quentin Westberg goal kick before chipping Diop.
“I feel pretty good to get a hat trick. But I know it’s not over,” said Akinola. “We still have one more (group) game left. So this game is in the past. I’m already thinking about the next one.”
Born in Detroit to Nigerian parents and raised in Canada, Akinola has plenty of international options. Nigerian and Canadian soccer officials have also reached out to him.
He was one when he came to Canada. And 14 when he started with the U.S. youth program, soon after joining the TFC academy. He got the call-up after a scout saw him in a 5-0 win over a New York Red Bulls youth side.
His younger brother Tom, born in Toronto, attended a Canadian youth identification camp in 2015.
Vanney seems in no hurry to get Altidore back in the lineup. The burly U.S. international is behind on training after spending much of the pandemic lockdown at his Florida home, necessitating time in quarantine upon his return to Canada.
“The conditions here are not easy with the heat and the humidity,” said Vanney, his voice hoarse from shouting during the match. “So we know it’s going to take Jozy a little time. While that’s happening, then Ayo can continue to do his thing.
“And even when Jozy comes back I think there’s the possibility we have two guys who can really cause some trouble to defences. So we’re going to keep riding Ayo’s confidence right now and let him keep going, let him keep learning. It’s his to keep doing right now.”
Altidore, happy to help young talent, is likely cheering him on just as loud.
Montreal coach Thierry Henry had lamented his team’s lack of desire on the night in the Impact’s 1-0 loss to New England last week.
He saw more fight this time with Montreal rallying from 1-0, 2-1 and 4-2 deficits.
“This is a tournament in which the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win,” Henry said. “There were a lot of mistakes on both sides, unfortunately more on our side especially on the defensive side.
“We will have to work on this and take care of it. What was positive, really was the way we created a lot of opportunities in the second half.”
Toronto is now unbeaten in its last 13 regular-season outings (5-0-8). Its last regular-season loss was Aug. 3, 2019 — a 2-0 defeat at the New York Red Bulls.
In other tournament news, MLS reported Thursday there had been no positive COVID-19 tests from the 1,124 people tested Tuesday and Wednesday.