ORLANDO, Fla. — The learning curve continues for Toronto FC under new coach Chris Armas.
Six games into the season, Toronto (1-3-2) has just one win after Saturday's 1-0 loss to Orlando City SC. An early goal by Canadian Tesho Akindele helped Orlando (3-0-3) extend its unbeaten start to the MLS campaign to a club-record six games.
After collecting just one point and being outscored 8-4 in its first three league games, Toronto came into Saturday's contest having taken four points and outscored the opposition 3-1 over its previous two matches.
Toronto manufactured chances Saturday — outshooting Orlando 18-10 (6-5 in shots on target) and holding a 9-4 edge in corners — but lacked a clinical finish against a well-organized Orlando defence. And it paid for an early defensive letdown.
Armas preferred to see the glass half full.
"I think we'll be disappointed at the goal we let in," said Armas. "But the attitude, the approach, the pressing, the commitment to when we don't have the ball, the ability to create chances, the structure, I think there's a lot of positives."
None of them were on display on Orlando's goal.
Dutch winger Silvester van der Water, acquired in February from Heracles Almelo of the Dutch top flight, made his MLS debut for Orlando and set up Akindele for the opening goal in the 12th minute.
After an Omar Gonzalez clearing header went to Orlando's Chris Mueller at midfield, the ball made its way four passes later to the right flank where van der Water sent a cross past Chris Mavinga who had been dragged wide from his centre back position. Junior Urso and Akindele were both left unmarked with a gaping hole in the middle of the Toronto defence.
The cross found Akindele, who headed it past goalkeeper Alex Bono for his second of the season — and the 39th of his MLS career. Akindele has been part of all three game-winners for Orlando this season, scoring two and assisting on Mauricio Pereyra’s strike in last week's 1-0 win over D.C. United.
Toronto winger Yeferson Soteldo and fullback Kemar Lawrence had both moved away from the left sideline, allowing Orlando a clear path down the flank and forcing Mavinga to move over.
Still there were seven or eight Toronto bodies in the penalty box. None was in position to close down Akindele or Urso.
TFC, which suffered through a pandemic-disrupted pre-season, is 2-5-3 in all competitions in 2021, including the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.
The club remains very much a work in progress with injured Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo yet to feature and newcomers Soteldo and Lawrence finding their way. Star striker Jozy Altidore, his start interrupted by injury, has yet to hit high gear.
Armas' confidence may be well placed, but it's a question of when Toronto puts it all together.
"We created chances we didn't finish. That's a part of the game," said Lawrence. "I know that will come with the quality we have and the depth we have. But for me, we've got to be tighter in the backline … And that doesn't come overnight."
On the plus side, Soteldo is already proving to be a handful. One defender is not enough to contain the diminutive Venezuelan with Fred Astaire-like feet.
"We thought he was dangerous all night long," said Armas.
Orlando, meanwhile, is already in high gear.
It is one of three unbeaten sides in Major League Soccer, along with the Seattle Sounders (5-0-1) and Nashville SC (1-0-4). And it lived up to that billing, bending but not breaking on defence and creating chances on the counter-attack with the hard-working Akindele leading the line.
"A great three points against a very good rival," said Orlando coach Oscar Pareja. "I think today we showed a lot of character."
Toronto pressed in injury time, making for a wild finish with Orlando 'keeper Pedro Gallese stopping shots by Nick DeLeon and Soteldo in the 96th minute — and Bono coming forward for the final seconds.
Orlando also scored early, in the seventh minute, in last week's win over D.C. United.
Orlando came into the game tied with Seattle in conceding a league-low 0.40 goals a game. In comparison, Toronto ranked 25th in the league, giving up an average of 1.80 goals an outing.
Gallese, Orlando's Peruvian international 'keeper, recorded his fourth shutout of the season, which is one more than his total in 19 games in 2020. Orlando has given up just two goals this season, one of which came from a penalty kick, and had allowed a league-low 15 shots on target in its first five games.
Orlando's four shutouts match its regular-season total from 2020.
"I think the boys are doing a great job of taking care of the details, especially defending in the last third," said Pareja.
Toronto is using Exploria Stadium as its home base this season during the pandemic. But Saturday's match was officially a home game for Orlando. A limited number of fans were allowed in Saturday night.
Armas made two changes to the starting 11 that rallied for a 1-1 tie at New York City FC last week. Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who had seen just 29 minutes in the first five league games due to a thigh issue, and Mark Delgado slotted in in place of Tsubasa Endoh and Ayo Akinola.
An unhappy-looking Osorio exited in the 55th minute, with a hand on the back of his right thigh. Gonzalez also asked to be substituted in the 81st minute, possibly due to cramping.
Armas continued with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Brazil's Auro alongside captain Michael Bradley in front of the backline.
Orlando made three changes to the team that beat D.C. United last time out. Portuguese star attacking midfielder Nani was suspended and fullback Joao Moutinho injured, with forward Benji Michel dropping to the bench. Brazilian fullback Ruan remained out through injury.
It was a high-energy first half, albeit one with relatively few gilt-edged chances.
NOTES: Orlando improved to 2-0-2 at Exploria Stadium while Toronto fell to 1-1-1 … Saturday's game was the first meeting between the two sides since a 1-1 tie Aug. 10, 2019, at BMO Field … Former Orlando forward Dom Dwyer (thigh) did not dress for Toronto … Toronto plays next Saturday at Columbus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2021
The Canadian Press