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New-look Toronto FC makes strong first impression, promises more to come

Toronto FC Toronto FC made a strong first impression after a major offseason overhaul (Ted S. Warren/AP)

SEATTLE — Toronto FC announced its intention to become a leader in Major League Soccer with big offseason signings. Those hopes began to take shape on the field with a season-opening 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday.

England international Jermain Defoe scored twice inside the opening half hour, and Michael Bradley patrolled the midfield in the manner that earned him the nickname Il Generale at A.S. Roma. In goal, Brazilian Júlio César didn’t have much to do, but he backstopped a back line that stood firm against a strong Seattle onslaught, and he made a nice kick save on Obafemi Martins in the 54th minute.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that as the season goes on, we’ll continue to improve, and our football will be good,” Bradley said. “Tonight was different. Tonight was about the spirit, the mentality and doing whatever it took to come away with three points.”

In stoppage time, Bradley and center back Steven Caldwell collided in an attempt to clear a cross, but the ball landed safely out of play anyway. The two high-fived and set themselves to deal with the ensuing corner kick, which was tame and cleared easily, seconds away from an important opening win.

WATCH: Defoe scores twice in first 24 MLS minutes

That moment personified Toronto’s renewed energy during a game that wiped the slate clean after a dismal 6-17-11 season in 2013. Spending copious amounts of the ownership’s money can have that effect, but team officials were quick to point out the process is still incipient.

“Our organization wasn’t too bad, but it can get so much better. We can get so much better with the ball as well,” TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen said. “It’s one game. We ticked that box.”

The most impressive aspect of Defoe’s start was his efficiency. He scored on his only two shots of the game, both calm finishes from the top of the penalty area. After scoring 13 goals in the last calendar year with Tottenham Hotspur and England in all competitions, he found space to punish Seattle twice in 24 minutes.

Most American fans, though, were fixed on Bradley. After Clint Dempsey’s move back to MLS last year resulted in a mediocre half-season, doubt lingered about whether Bradley could avoid the same fate.

WAHL: Toronto FC tops 2014 MLS Ambition Rankings

His style of play won't stand out the way Defoe’s might, but he anchored a midfield in which he and Jonathan Osorio were outnumbered by the Sounders’ two holding midfielders and Dempsey in the middle.

“It’s not a day for putting together a million passes and necessarily playing through the midfield,” Bradley said. “It’s about putting good balls forward, moving your lines, making sure you’re on top of all these little things in the midfield, and I thought we did a really good job with that.”

He finished with a 70 percent pass-completion rate, which is less than his customary 90-plus, but he covered ground on both sides of the halfway line in his box-to-box role. As the match wore on, Bradley looked more comfortable with the bulldog role he was required to play against a direct Sounders team, winning knockdowns and recovering second balls.

“He initiates a lot of pressure, and he backs it up,” Nelsen said. “He causes turnovers by his presence.”

It was Bradley's pressure on Marco Pappa that caused the turnover for Defoe's second goal in the first half. Toward the end of the game, his role changed to supporting Toronto as it soaked up constant pressure from a desperate Sounders attack.

CREDITOR: Dempsey ends scoring drought with goal vs. TFC

Toronto's 324 combined international caps showed, with Bradley at one point taking a deliberately long time to play a short free kick and take time off the clock instead of whacking it long. César picked up a yellow card for taking his time on a goal kick, frustrating both the crowd and Sounders players. (Of the team's caps, 182 resided with the goalkeeper, back four and Bradley.)

Toronto expected a much-improved performance from the end of last season, the players’ unfamiliarity with each other notwithstanding. Still, the sense from everybody involved is that the product on the field now is far from where it will be toward the playoff push.

“We’ve got a vision of where the club wants to be, and we’re trying to take steps forward,” Nelsen said. “How big those steps are, are determined on days like this. It was a good step forward today.”

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