By Brady Reid.
Toronto FC failed to capitalize on an early 2-0 lead and a man advantage as DC United scored twice in the closing minutes to secure a 2-2 draw in this “MLS is Back” Group C clash on Monday Morning.
In the early goings, this match appeared to be trending towards a lopsided Toronto victory when Ayo Akinola’s 12th-minute strike from outside the box put the Reds in the driver’s seat.
Akinola doubled TFC’s lead with a tap in the 44th minute before Junior Moreno was sent off for D.C. just before the half.
What a finish from Akinola, who needs Altidore? 😉 #TFCLive
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) July 13, 2020
Down a man and behind 2-0, DC looked to be done and dusted before substitute Federico Higuaín scored a cheeky chip to give United a lifeline with just six minutes to play.
Frederic Brillant completed the comeback for the Black and Red when his header found the back of the net in stoppage time to secure a point and a 2-2 draw.
Ultimately, DC will be the far happier side with the result, as Toronto looked to be in cruise control through the first 85 minutes.
With the final scoreline telling but a fraction of the whole story, what did we learn throughout the 90 minutes about both teams?
1. No Altidore, No Achara, No Problem
Ayo Akinola wasn’t even in the squad when Toronto FC started their season on the road against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Thanks to the unavailability of both Jozy Altidore (coach’s decision) and Ifunanyachi Achara (injury), the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting XI against DC to open the ‘MLS is Back’ tournament and did not disappoint.
Coming in with just one MLS goal scored for the Reds in 12 career appearances, Akinola scored a brace in his audition as Toronto’s interim number nine.
12′ AYOOOOOO with a SCREAMER!!
— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) July 13, 2020
His ability to hold up the ball and allow runners such as Pablo Piatti and Alejandro Pozuelo to go beyond him was a key facet in the offensive fluidity that Toronto demonstrated in the early goings of this match.
The one knock against the youngster in this one was his failure to convert a couple more chances that came his way. A missed opportunity on the left foot midway through the second half felt as though it would be long forgotten at the final whistle. Overall, it feels quite harsh to critique the centre forward who showed more than enough to justify Greg Vanney’s decision to give him the nod up-front.
Unfortunately for Akinola, his brace secured just a single point in the end as the Toronto defence capitulated in the closing moments.
2. Substitutes A Saviour For DC And A Nightmare For The Reds
Speaking of Greg Vanney’s tactical decisions, Akinola’s inclusion in the starting line-up isn’t where the story ends.
His decision to make a double swap at the back, replacing Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez with Eriq Zavaleta and Laurent Ciman, proved to be fatal for TFC.
Zavaleta & Ciman made a really good case for Liam Fraser moving up to third on the CB depth chart.
I can’t get over Ciman on this play. pic.twitter.com/63xsx39a3B
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 13, 2020
The lack of pace amongst the latter pairing played a big role in Federico Higuaín’s finesse finish to give DC a chance at 2-1.
On the equalizing goal, it was Ciman who failed to contest Brillant’s header. While Vanney surely thought the game was done and dusted, a double change at centre-back is rare for a reason, as the balance of the entire back four was lost with the change. In hindsight, he’ll be regretting the gamble heavily.
Full marks to Ben Olsen for bringing Higuaín on with ten minutes remaining as the veteran’s finish is what kickstarted the comeback. The longtime Columbus Crew marksman was making his first appearance for the club and did so in dazzling fashion.
With none of Julian Gressel, Ola Kamara, or Edison Flores making it to the hour mark, it appeared as though DC had accepted defeat and were hoping to save the legs of their attacking options to bounce back next time out.
In the end, Olsen got the best of both worlds, with some of his star power getting a break from the Orlando heat as DC snatched a point at the death.
3. Michael Bradley Remains A Force In Midfield
At 32 years old, the TFC captain isn’t getting any younger, and a significant ankle injury suffered in last year’s MLS Cup Final held him out of the squad to start the season.
With plenty of time to rest during the pause of play, Bradley was available once again for the Reds, but questions over how he would cope in his return remained ahead of kickoff.
Those concerns were quickly dismissed as the American international proved he still has plenty of quality here. Bradley looked as lively in the middle of the park as ever, lunging into several crunching tackles and constantly winning back possession for TFC in crucial positions.
His long-range passing, particularly in the first half when Toronto were relentless in attack, was the beginning of many of his side’s dangerous moments.
In typical fiery-Michael Bradley style, it was the Toronto skipper at the forefront of the fireworks between the two teams at full-time. As captain of the club, Bradley had every right to be frustrated, but perhaps he was taking it out on the wrong side as TFC had nobody but themselves to blame for the final result.
Although Bradley and Co. will look back on this one as a missed opportunity, the first 85 minutes of the match offered a lot for the Reds to be satisfied with, and few players on the pitch played a bigger role in that than the captain.