Here’s an ill-advised thing to confess at the top of what is supposed to be a match report: I’m a terrible watcher of soccer games. I constantly minimize and maximize screens, look down at my phone to tweet, get up, leave, come back, and sometimes nod off. Four-thirty in the afternoon is a tough ask to watch anything thoughtfully and without distraction, particularly when you’re banished to a room of your own.
But the first half of Toronto FC’s visit to the Philadelphia Union, a recent return to playing in below zero weather, did not make things easy for me. In fact, it gave ‘MLS blackout’ a whole new meaning.
Again, there are caveats to discuss here, boring but important ones like geography and climate. Yes, it does matter that the club had only last week played at several thousand metres above sea level in Utah, two hours behind the eastern time zone, in temperatures ranging from the low 40s to the low 60s. Seven days later, they played in 26 degree weather on the East Coast in Chester Philadelphia. Next week, they’ll fly the entire length of the continent to play Vancouver.
You can pretend these things are unimportant, that Toronto FC’s players all know the deal and have done this before, that they, like every MLS club, had a pre-season to sort themselves out. But things were not working in the first half against the Union, for reasons that probably went beyond tactical and technical gaps.
And there were a few of both. Steven Beitashour’s replacement in right wing back Tsubasa Endoh looked out of sorts, in a position he apparently rarely if ever plays, and the TFC back line’s strategy of raking long balls toward the diminutive Sebastian Giovinco failed to produce much of anything, beyond some forced jogging for the Union’s—er—slightly taller Gooch Onyewu.
At the heart of everything, too, was referee Mark Geiger, who gave a by-the-book penalty to Toronto to let Jozy Altidore cancel out Jay Simpson’s 10th minute opener just before the first half whistle. This came only a few minutes after Giovinco limped off the pitch with assistance, the result of a leg contusion courtesy of Gooch’s errant knee. The game on the whole was definitely grabby, annoyingly so, and made far worse by Geiger’s inconsistency and the rampant homerism of CSN’s Philly-based broadcast crew.
While the 2-2 result was a good one and probably deserved, like all good grinds it came with a pinch of good luck. Nick Hagglund nearly buried Toronto when he inexplicably pulled at the back of Fabian Herbers well beyond the 18 yard line in the 31st minute, but Alejandro Bedoya’s penalty banged delightfully off the bar.
That said, there was a time Toronto FC’s not-so-distant past where this team would have folded after an early goal, but Toronto did manage to keep the ball on the park in the second half as the rust finally flaked off. A long pass from Michael Bradley at the 71st minute mark saw Justin Morrow score the go-ahead goal away from home, which is not something Toronto FC have been able to do historically and should be celebrated, even though the Union’s sub CJ Sapong managed to break a sloppy trap only a couple of minutes later to make it level.
Again, writing this, I’m already feeling myself sucked into thinking that TFC’s ‘form’ right now means something. The old me, the one that wrote match report thingies for the Guardian and was constantly worried about maintaining his soccer writer bona fides, would have probably spun some yarn about how Toronto looked better with Giovinco off the pitch, and that maybe this means that the Toronto are too dependent on the star Italian forward, and that maybe Greg Vanney should experiment with earlier substitutions particularly as Tosaint Ricketts looked so effective.
There’s the danger, though: the closer you stare at MLS teams, the easier it is to think that the mistakes matter, the sloppiness and slowness matters, or even that the positives—like Victor Vazquez’s calm, level-headed play, the utter, incomprehensible underrated-ness of Ricketts as a sub—matter.
But goddamn it, it’s March! Six months from all that will matter is the road point. They have two in two games. This is good, because next week Toronto plays Vancouver, and by then the team will have already covered all three time North American zones.