Any win is worth celebrating, especially if you are Toronto FC.
But Saturday’s 4-1 victory over D.C. United was like beating your little brother, who had just got out of hospital.
At 3-21-6, D.C. United is the only team with a worse record than Toronto (5-15-11) in MLS. There has been little to celebrate for the once mighty franchise this season.
But United is in the U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday, taking on Real Salt Lake for a prized trophy. So coach Ben Olsen shuffled his entire starting lineup for the Toronto game, resting his starters for the cup final.
United dressed just 16 players, two short of the maximum. His starting lineup included 17-year-old forward Michael Seaton, making his league debut.
“I set these guys up to fail today,” said Olsen. “It’s pretty simple.”
“We hung in there for about 60 minutes. Then I got some guys out that were going to maybe to factor into the Tuesday game. And now I’m putting guys out of position. You start adding those up and you’re playing a real team in the MLS, that’s what can happen.
“Our focus this week, the majority was on Tuesday and I set them up to fail. But I was proud of the effort. Certainly the work rate and the commitment from the guys, I couldn’t ask for better.”
Toronto scored three goals in a 20-minute span of the second half as Olsen made substitutions and his reserve players’ lack of fitness was exposed.
“Because they haven’t had a 90(-minute game) in a long time,” he said. “You add it all up and that’s what can happen at the end of a game.”
Bright Dike, Alvaro Rey and Darel Russell scored for Toronto, which also benefited from an own goal before an announced crowd of 15,879 at BMO Field on a sunny, windy afternoon. Midfielder Jared Jeffrey replied for D.C. United.
Dike’s winning goal came in the 67th minute after referee Ted Unkel played advantage down the right flank when a D.C. United defender pulled a Toronto player down. Fullback Mark Bloom motored past the wreckage and sent in a cross that Dike volleyed home for his first goal in a Toronto shirt.
Toronto made it 3-1 four minutes later after Rey’s cross from in close bounced in off D.C. United defender Conor Shanosky. Rey than dribbled around a string of defenders before slotting the ball home in the 87th minute to pad the lead.
The win snapped an eight-game league winless streak for Toronto. D.C. United now hasn’t won in eight games.
“We kind of expected it,” acting Toronto manager Jim Brennan said of the weakened United lineup.
“A win’s a win. Regardless of who you’re playing against,” he added. “It’s always good to get a win. It doesn’t matter who they end up bringing. Those boys in that (home) dressing room will be happy with that result and getting the goals that they did today.”
No doubt there were no complaints when the Toronto players saw who they were facing. United’s depleted side helped kickstart a sputtering Toronto offence that had not scored more than one goal in a game since July 27.
Coming into the game, the Toronto starting 11 had combined for just six goals this season.
And it was Toronto’s biggest offensive output since a 5-1 win over CD Aguila of El Salvador in August 2012 in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Olsen’s team sheet had no starting place for Dwayne De Rosario, Luis Silva, Chris Pontius, Dejan Jakovic, John Thorrington, Nick DeLeon, Bill Hamid or any other starter that featured in last weekend’s loss in New England.
“Unfortunately we have the luxury to not matter so much about results in the league,” said Olsen. “So that (lineup) decision wasn’t a hard one.”
Toronto winger Bobby Convey spent five seasons at D.C. United at the start of his career and said he knew maybe one starter on the other side of the field. Some were young enough to be his kids, the 30-year-old joked.
Toronto FC was without suspended defender Steven Caldwell, midfielder Jonathan Osorio, manager Ryan Nelsen and assistant coach Fran O’Leary. Assistant coach Brennan, the franchise’s first player and captain, ran the sidelines.
Toronto elected to start Bloom over Richard Eckersley at fullback. With both Eckersley and goalie Stefan Frei on the bench, that meant Toronto had more than US$500,000 in cap hit watching from the sidelines.
Goalie Joe Bendik, resplendent in pink as part of MLS’s breast cancer awareness campaign, captained Toronto in Caldwell’s absence. Bendik won the starting job after Frei was injured in the first pre-season game.
While the rosters were thin, the goals were of top quality.
Jeffrey’s goal came in the 15th minute on a beautiful left-footed shot from outside the penalty box that found the top corner while beating a diving Bendik. Defender Doneil Henry offered an unwitting assist with his clearing header going right to an unmarked Jeffrey, who scored the second MLS goal of his young career.
Russell equalized in the 26th minute after United was unable to clear a free kick. The ball was sent back in, bouncing off a D.C. United defender to Russell, who put the ball away acrobatically with a side-scissors kick.
It was the third goal of the season for the English midfielder, who specializes in highlight-reel scores.
Joe Willis made a great save, low and in the corner, off Dike in the 34th minute after a fine cross from Rey.
The Spanish winger almost scored himself in the 57th minute, curling a ball across goal that came close to dipping into the net in the swirling wind.
Toronto pushed the pace in the second half in a game where every set play seemed like an adventure waiting to happen
D.C. United is now 0-13-3 on the road this season. A game in Kansas City represents the last chance to avoid joining the 2011 Vancouver Whitecaps and three other teams as the only MLS clubs to go through an entire season without a road victory.
The victory was Toronto’s 50th in league play in seven seasons, raising its career MLS mark to 50-103-66.
Olsen wasn’t that impressed by what he saw in the home side, which fell behind in the first half.
“It was OK, I guess,” he said of the Toronto performance