ORLANDO, Fla. — After a rocky start to the MLS season, Toronto FC showed signs Wednesday that it is back on track.
Captain Michael Bradley scored a goal and helped set up the other as Toronto (1-2-1) defeated defending MLS champion Columbus SC 2-0 for its first league victory of the young campaign.
The Crew were undermanned on the night, digging into their roster to fill holes.
In his first start, newly signed designated player Yeferson Soteldo showed flashes of why TFC splashed a $US6-million transfer fee on him. And star striker Jozy Altidore, recovered from a bout of illness, scored off the bench.
"This was a really complete team performance," a relieved Chris Armas said after notching his first league win as Toronto coach.
"It was a big win, there's no two ways about it," added Bradley.
Bradley gave Toronto the lead in the 13th minute and Altidore added an insurance goal in the 87th after Omar Gonzalez headed on a Bradley free kick to the burly striker, who nodded it home.
The score could easily have been more lopsided, with Toronto hitting the crossbar twice. TFC also had a penalty appeal for handball turned down in the 82nd minute.
Armas got a vastly improved performance from his team. TFC looked far more poised and less error-prone than in its previous league outings.
"It's been a crazy start to the year," said Bradley, whose team started preseason in the Toronto winter, had to deal with a COVID outbreak and then set up shop in Florida ahead of some big Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League matches with a stomach bug going through the team during a trip to Mexico.
"We don't want anybody's sympathy. They're not excuses," said Bradley. "But it's what we've had to deal with."
"We have high standards and high expectations," he added. "And when you're not taking the points that you want, when you're not winning games, that eats at you."
Bradley, enjoying more freedom to come forward under Armas, had a fine game with a rare goal and some deft playmaking.
Soteldo, who saw 34 minutes off the bench in his debut on the weekend, made his first start for Toronto and looked dangerous in the first half. The Venezuelan international was substituted in the 64th minute after a quiet start to the second half, with newly signed Jamaican international Kemar Lawrence coming on to make his TFC debut.
The five-foot-two 121-pound Soteldo, who took turns on the left and right wing as well as behind striker Ayo Akinola, delivered a probing free kick early on, and showed a good passing touch. Skillful on the ball, he promises to be a handful for MLS defenders.
"You can see that in the final third (of the field) he can unbalance and he's dangerous, " said Armas. "He's a very intelligent player … Listen I think what he adds to the team is real quality — but also a real belief. You feel like your chances are better with guys like that."
Soteldo almost opened his scoring account in the 26th minute when Nick DeLeon's shot hit the crossbar and dropped in front of the Venezuelan. His shot was headed towards an empty goal until a sliding Saad Abdul-Salaam got a foot to the ball, prompting Soteldo to look skywards in disbelief.
Bradley scored early, converting his second shot attempt of a goalmouth scramble that saw the ball hit at least 10 bodies following a Soteldo corner.
It was Bradley's 13th career goal in MLS and his first since Sept 7, 2019. It also marked just the second goal conceded by Columbus in four MLS games this season.
Toronto, which came into the game having won just once (1-4-2) in all competitions in 2021, completed 86.2 percent of its passes compared to 65 percent on the weekend against the New York Red Bulls.
And the team seemed to find a better balance on when to turn up the heat in terms of Armas' preferred pressing style off the ball.
Armas made one change from the starting 11 beaten 2-0 Saturday at the New York Red Bulls with Soteldo replacing teenager Jayden Nelson. Altidore came on in the 62nd minute and hit the crossbar in the 75th after neatly making room for the shot.
Forward Dom Dwyer, formally added to the TFC roster Tuesday, did not dress.
It was a first loss of the season for Columbus (1-1-2), which was missing a slew of injured players. Arriving in the Florida heat the day of the game likely didn't help.
"I'm not one to make excuses ," said coach Caleb Porter. "For me, we have to find a way to win, no matter what … And we didn't."
Giving up two goals on set pieces did not sit well with Porter.
"That's unacceptable," he said.
The Crew arrived unbeaten in eight straight matches (6-0-2) counting last season’s playoffs. Columbus's last MLS loss was a 2-1 defeat at Orlando on Nov. 4, 2020.
Porter made five changes to the team that dispatched D.C. United 3-1 on the weekend.
Both clubs have had to balance MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play while dealing with a lengthy injury list.
Reigning league MVP Alejandro Pozuelo (thigh) has yet to feature for Toronto this season but is said to be nearing a return. Midfielder Jonathan Osorio (thigh), another important part of the TFC puzzle, did not dress.
Columbus was without Kevin Molino (hamstring), Aidan Morris (knee), Marlon Hairston (knee), Perry Kitchen (thigh) and Milton Valenzuela (thigh), Pedro Santos (knee) and former TFC defender Josh Williams (shoulder).
Abdul-Salaam and Romanian midfielder Alex Matan made their first starts for the Crew. Columbus dressed just six substitutes, compared to nine for Toronto.
Wednesday's game was Columbus’s fourth in 12 days. Toronto was playing its third game in nine days with a match at New York City FC to come Saturday.
Toronto opened the MLS season with a 4-2 loss to CF Montreal before tying the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-2 and losing to the Red Bulls. That marked the first time TFC has begun the MLS season winless in its first three matches since 2012.
Columbus played the Philadelphia Union and CF Montreal to scoreless draws before downing D.C. United.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2021