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Toronto FC shows signs of new life in scoreless draw in season opener at Cincinnati

CINCINNATI — Toronto FC, showing signs of new life under coach John Herdman, gave supporters something to cheer about in a 0-0 draw with FC Cincinnati in the teams' MLS season opener Sunday.

The game at TQL Stadium was a first-against-worst matchup. But Toronto did not look outmatched against a side that finished 47 points above it last season. Cincinnati won the Supporters' Shield with a league-best 20-5-9 record while Toronto (4-20-10) was mired at the bottom of the table.

The gap in the standings was not evident as TFC started well, stroking the ball around confidently. But Cincinnati came on in latter stages of the first half, showing speed on the counter-attack after Toronto turnovers.

When Cincinnati threatened, goalkeeper Sean Johnson was up to the challenge and was rewarded with his 100th career shutout.

Toronto was without injured forwards Deandre Kerr and Jordan Perruzza, newly signed defender Nickseon Gomis and top draft pick Tyrese Spicer, who was with TFC II to get some playing time after being sidelined by a toe injury.

Fullback Richie Laryea, reacquired this week in a transfer from England's Nottingham Forest, and newly signed centre back Kevin Long both started. Prince Owusu got the start at forward between Italian stars Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne.

Long lined up between Raoul Petretta and Shane O'Neill, who won kudos from Herdman during the pre-season, in a back three. Honduran international Deybi Flores, another newcomer, started in midfield.

For Cincinnati, the home opener fell in the middle of its Champions Cup tie with Jamaica's Cavalier FC. Cincinnati won 2-0 in Jamaica on Thursday and is hosting the return leg Wednesday.

The game marked 2023 MVP Luciano (Lucho) Acosta's 100th as Cincinnati captain.

Laryea went down in the third minute on the edge of the penalty box in contact with Obinna Nwobodo. Referee Jonathan Weiner initially awarded a penalty but changed his mind after watching a replay on the pitchside monitor at the advice of the video assistant referee.

Instead TFC got a free kick at the edge of the box, with goalkeeper Roman Celentano acrobatically stopping Insigne's set piece. At the other end, Johnson made a reflex fine save to parry a Corey Baird bicycle kick off a corner in the 15 minute.

Insigne had a chance in first-half stoppage time but his deflected shot ended up hitting Owusu.

Bernardeschi had couple of chances early in the second half but Celentano saved one shot and another hit a defender.

Johnson stopped Brazilian Sergio Santos and Argentina's Acosta early in the second half.

Insigne exited in the 62nd minute, part of Herdman's plan to conserve the 32-year-old Italian to avoid injury and overwork. Laryea came off in the 70th minute, favouring the back of his right leg.

For Herdman, it was only game No. 2 on the TFC sidelines and his first in charge away from BMO Field. While he took over the team Oct. 1, he let assistant coach Terry Dunfield run the squad for two games so he could watch from a distance before taking over for the season finale, a 2-0 loss to visiting Orlando.

Toronto finished the 2023 season mired in a seven-game losing streak and having won just one of its last 18 games (1-17-0) in all competitions. TFC failed to win on the road in league play (0-13-4) last season and has not won away from home since Aug. 27, 2022, when it triumphed 2-0 at Charlotte FC.

Blanked in its last eight road outings, Toronto's goalless drought away from home stood at 799 minutes before Sunday since Kerr scored in a 2-1 loss at New England on June 24, 2023. TFC was outscored 25-0 in its final eight road outings last season.

TFC's last goal anywhere came Sept. 30 at BMO Field by newly appointed captain Jonathan Osorio in a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati. Coming into Sunday's match, TFC had been blanked for 316 minutes since.

Sunday's game was be played with replacement officials in charge after the Professional Soccer Referees Association rejected a tentative agreement with the Professional Referees Organization, which then locked out the officials.

Toronto plays at New England next Sunday before returning to BMO Feld for the March 9 home opener against Charlotte.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2024h

The Canadian Press