TORONTO – The largest souvenir stand on the main concourse at BMO Field featured the jerseys of three players for sale on Saturday: Jermaine Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto.
Each is a Toronto FC newcomer and each is a Designated Player. Together, they represent a break from the mostly miserable past and a $100 million-plus investment in soccer’s future in this cosmopolitan metro area of nearly 6 million people alongside Lake Ontario.
The pressure is high, anticipation has soared, and the results look good so far. The three DPs combined to set up and score TFC’s only goal in Saturday’s historic 1-0 win over D.C. United. It’s historic because it marks the first time in Toronto’s eight seasons that it started 2-0-0 (it’s also only the ninth MLS winning streak in club history). A new era has begun.
“I thought the performance was very good because, obviously, it’s a bit of an awkward game for us because we knew expectations were high. We knew the crowd would be out,” TFC coach Ryan Nelsen said, adding that the choppy field ensured the home opener was “not going to be one for the purists.”
But Toronto kept its composure in a match Nelsen said would have been a “banana skin for us last year.” Much improved since its heavy season-opening loss to the Columbus Crew two weeks ago, United won the possession battle by some distance. But TFC created the vast majority of the scoring chances, and on a different night or a better field, Defoe likely would've had a hat trick.
“Early in the season, conditions far from ideal, but good teams find a way to win,” said Bradley, who spoke to the press at BMO after having 13 staples put into his head to close a wound suffered during a second-half collision with D.C.’s Davy Arnaud.
“Teams that are able to stick together and win on days even when conditions are tough and the field’s no good and it’s windy and all these things work against you," Bradley said. "We talked about wanting to be a team like that. It’s still early -- still only two games. But better two wins than two losses.”
Bradley set the table on Saturday for a goal that was an hour in the making. Defoe, who scored twice for TFC in last weekend’s 2-1 win at the Seattle Sounders, consistently found space in D.C.’s penalty area but was unable to finish. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid stymied the English international on an open 20th-minute look set up by Gilberto, then made a second save at his near post four minutes later. As halftime approached, Defoe beat D.C.’s Sean Franklin to the ball at the six-yard line but hit the post.
Despite the near misses, Nelsen said that TFC retained its confidence.
“When it falls to a player of his quality, and you’ll see with Gilberto as well, you’re surprised when it doesn’t go in. No disrespect to [TFC forwards of the past], but it might have been the other way – you were surprised when it went in,” the manager said.
In the 60th minute, Bradley sent a perfect, curling pass over the D.C. back four that Gilberto settled with a slick touch of his left foot. His right-footed blast was parried aside by Hamid, but an under-pressure Bobby Boswell played the ball back toward Defoe. Seconds later, the sell-out crowd of 22,591 erupted.
“He sniffs out chances and when chances fall for him, he’s really good at knowing what he wants to do with it, and making the keeper make a really good save or scoring,” Bradley said of Defoe.
There were no illusions in the victorious locker room. There were six new starters on Saturday, but this is a club still without a single playoff appearance since debuting in 2007. There’s a culture to instill and chemistry to develop. But Saturday’s optimism was notable and significant, both in the BMO Field stands and among the players and coaches who hope to make good on the club’s investment.
“You should draw on any sort of confidence you can gain,” Nelsen said of the perfect start. “All the players know, and I know, that we’re not a top team right now. We’re very good. We’re very well organized, and you haven’t seen the best of us. And you won’t see the best of us because we’re still new. That was the first time Gilberto and Jermain played together. Jonathan [Osorio] and Michael [Bradley] are still learning together … They’re all new and it takes time. So we will evolve as a team, especially with the ball. But the pleasing thing is we look solid and we're finding ways to win.”