Toronto FC manager Aron Winter paused mid-news conference and smiled.
“It’s nice. Different questions,” he said contentedly.
After a record-setting nine straight losses to start the MLS season, Winter finally had a win to talk about thanks to Danny Koevermans’ 88th-minute goal against the Philadelphia Union.
The 1-0 victory Saturday admittedly came against the league’s second-worst team in Philadelphia (2-7-2), but a win is a win. Especially after nine losses.
Toronto’s last league win was Sept. 17 against Colorado.
Winter has spent week after week this season answering the same questions with only the number of losses changing. He has calmly responded to every one, whether it be about a team in turmoil or a possible axe hanging over his head.
On Saturday, he offered up a little emotion after his team scored just its eighth league goal of the season.
“It’s a big relief,” he said, before turning it back on the reporters present. “Finally, other questions for you all.”
Toronto (0-9-1) has made chances in front of goal and flubbed most of them this season. Saturday was no different as a slew of chances went begging until the dying minutes.
Nick Soolsma outmuscled a Union defender in the box and fed the ball to fellow substitute Koevermans at the near post. The big Dutch striker’s first attempt bounced off goalie Chris Konopka but he made no mistake with the second try.
“We had to wait until the last moments of the game but I felt it could easily have been 3-0 in the first half,” said midfielder Julian de Guzman.
Toronto came at Philadelphia in waves.
“The first 20 minutes we had four 100-per-cent chances,” said Winter.
The difference this time was Toronto finally scored when it counted. And it was playing an offensively challenged team.
It was a cruel ending for Konopka, Philadelphia’s third-string goalie making his first start of the season with starter Zac MacMath (concussion symptoms) and backup Chase Harrison (ankle sprain) both out.
Things got so bad that Union coach Peter Nowak had his goalies wear protective headgear in training this week to avoid further injury.
Nowak was feeling the pain after the late goal.
“I’m extremely disappointed with our performance,” he said. “We had a couple of good games where we played the way we wanted to play and today was completely opposite. Two steps forward and three steps back.”
Toronto goalie Milos Kocic was rarely pressed into action before an announced crowd of 18,227 on a sunny afternoon at BMO Field.
The home side came into the game buoyed by a midweek win over the Vancouver Whitecaps that netted it a fourth straight Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champion.
“The atmosphere going into the game was a lot more positive than the previous games,” said de Guzman. “It had a lot to do with the Canada Cup.”
Kocic echoed that view.
“I felt this coming after the Vancouver game. I felt the positivity in the whole team in the locker-room.”
It’s been eight months and 23 games since Toronto has recorded back-to-back wins in all competitions. Winter’s team beat Colorado 2-1 in league play and FC Tauro 1-0 in the CONCACAF Champions League last September.
A cup contender — Toronto is 3-1-4 in combined CONCACAF Champions League and Amway Canadian Championship play this season — Toronto has floundered in the league.
Toronto now has a three-week break due to the next round of World Cup qualifiers. It returns to tough away games, in Kansas City on June 16 and Houston on June 20.
“There’s still a lot of football ahead,” said de Guzman. “
That’s good because Toronto still has a huge hole to dig itself out of.
The mood is positive, however.
“We’re on a road to something very successful and something very good,” said Kocic.
Koevermans and Soolsma were unavailable after the game. They and fellow substitute Richard Eckersley played in the reserve match that followed.
For Koevermans, the goal capped a headline-making week.
He became the centre of attention following some emotional comments in the wake of last Saturday’s ugly 3-1 loss at D.C. United.
“We’re setting a record for the worst team in the world, man, and it’s painful,” Koevermans said at the time. “What can I say more? It’s just the worst ever.”
Koevermans has also found himself on the bench since returning from a groin injury four games ago. He has come on as a substitute three time, scoring twice.
Winter says he has just been waiting for Koevermans to reach full fitness before starting him.
“When Danny is fit, he’s going to play always because he’s a DP (designated player), he’s a good striker making goals. You have to bring him (back) slowly.”
Koevermans, who has insisted he has been fit the last two weeks, celebrated his goal with wild abandon Saturday.
Toronto outshot Philadelphia 9-2 (1-0 in shots on target) in the first half. The final tally was 18-11 (7-2 in shots on target) in Toronto’s favour.
The Union had the edge in possession at 58.2 per cent but only rarely strung passes together to mount a proper attack.
Toronto got some luck.
Union midfielder Michael Farfan hit the crossbar with a swerving shot from well outside the penalty box early in the second half. Kocic was up to everything else.