The embrace between player and coach said it all.
Eric Hassli, surplus to requirements with the Vancouver Whitecaps barely four weeks ago, had just scored his first goal for Toronto FC Wednesday night and immediately ran to Paul Mariner to show his appreciation for his new manager.
In his home debut for his new club, the burly Frenchman was everything Mariner had hoped he would be when he gave up a first-round pick on July 20, scoring the first goal and setting up the second in a man-of-the-match performance to earn Toronto a surprise 2-2 draw against the Portland Timbers.
Hassli wasted little time crediting the Englishman for putting him at ease with an unfamiliar situation.
“It is difficult to be traded because in Europe you’re not used to getting traded, but he called me two, three hours later and just to speak with him I felt so good and I really wanted to start working with him,” the former Whitecap said. “The first time I met him in Toronto he just jumped on me and now I could kill somebody for him. It’s great for me and I’m really happy to be here.”
The feeling is certainly mutual.
Already in an unenviable position when he took over as TFC manager on June 7 – courtesy of the 1-9 start under his predecessor Aron Winter – any chance Mariner had of making something of the season seemed to go down the drain when game-breaking Dutch striker Danny Koevermans went down with torn knee ligaments during a 1-0 win in New England on July 14.
But Mariner refused to throw in the towel, targeting a player who had exploded onto the Major League Soccer scene last season but had fallen out of favour this term under first-year Vancouver coach Martin Rennie, giving Toronto an experienced cutting edge up front once more.
It was sorely needed Wednesday night. With more than half of the TFC regulars unavailable due to a combination of international commitments and injury, or in the case of defender Logan Emory, suspension, Mariner had all but given up on the notion of getting something out of this game, even against a club that is bottom of the Western Conference and hadn’t tasted victory since July 3.
His fears proved well founded. Defender David Horst headed just over from a corner in the eight minute, but the home side failed to heed the warning, with another corner proving its undoing – the seventh such time TFC has conceded a goal in that fashion this season. Steven Smith’s cross eventually found its way to Portland’s Sal Zizzo, and though Eric Avila blocked his first attempt on the line, the 25-year-old was ideally positioned to sweep home the rebound for his first MLS goal.
With Portland enjoying the lion’s share of the possession in the first half – to say nothing of the 7-4 shot differential – it looked like the shorthanded situation was going to be terminal for the home side. One look at Mariner’s substitutes bench – two players short of its normal seven occupants – showed the depth of the coach’s problems, especially given the average age of 21 of the outfield quartet available to him.
But Mariner’s faith, and confidence, in Hassli were were rewarded 12 minutes into the second half. A deep-lying Richard Eckersley free kick was headed on to the foot of Luis Silva, and though the rookie’s shot was saved by Portland debutant Donovan Ricketts – the former Montreal Impact goalkeeper – Hassli earned a small portion of his $790,000 (U.S.) designated-player salary, following up to level the scores.
And he turned provider six minutes later, heading Ashton Morgan’s cross onto the foot of Silva, who had the simplest of tasks to poke it past Ricketts.
Even with just two games to assess his young teammate, Hassli was full of praise for the rookie.
“He’s just great,” the 31-year-old said. “His skills, his runs, his movements. I think he’s the best young guy in this league and for me it’s great to play with him.”
When he wasn’t altering the score sheet, Hassli also showed the other side of his character – the one that earned him three red cards last season – needlessly tripping defender Hanyer Mosquera in an act of frustration in the dying minutes of the first half.
But the dream ending was not to be, as the usual TFC defensive miscues inevitably returned to haunt the home side, allowing Darlington Nagbe the chance head home Smith’s cross into an unguarded net, giving the visitors a share of the spoils.
While Hassli may be new to Toronto’s defensive woes – at least in so far as he’s not taking advantage of them this time – Kocic has seen it all before, but given the situation at halftime, he was moderately happy with a point.
“It’s a huge comeback for us,” he explained. “We’re not known as a team that comes back so easy and we did it tonight, we did it against Vancouver [in the 3-2 win last month], but unfortunately we didn’t close the game.
“We need to be smarter in the last 10 minutes.”
As Hassli may soon find out, it’s a familiar refrain at BMO Field.