After months as the league’s doormat, Toronto FC is finally picking itself up off the MLS floor.
Danny Koevermans extended his torrid scoring run and Toronto FC (2-10-3) continued its revival under Paul Mariner with a 1-1 tie with the high-flying New York Red Bulls (9-4-4) on Saturday night.
New York’s vaunted strikeforce of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, who have 20 of New York’s 32 goals this season, was kept off the scoresheet and the Red Bulls managed just one shot on target. Cooper did hit the post.
“It’s not beautiful flowing football but we’re a little harder to beat than we have been in the past,” said a happy Mariner. “If you become a hard team to beat in this league, and you stay in the game with the likes of Ryan (Johnson) and Danny and Torsten (Frings) with his service, you might be able to nick something.”
Toronto is 1-1-3 under Mariner, who succeeded Aron Winter as head coach. His record could have been even better had the team not given up two-goal leads against Houston and New England, settling for a tie in both cases.
The record is all the more impressive considering Mariner’s five games have come in just two weeks.
“Those boys are working for this club, they are working very hard,” said the English coach, who was particularly happy with his young back four.
Both goals came in the first six minutes of a wide-open game that was long on entertainment. Toronto FC did not look like a team that has 22 points less that the visitors and had the better chances as the clock wound down.
“They’re a more direct team, I would say, compared to what Aron Winter wanted to do,” said Henry. “Tight now, they’re doing extremely well ... We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task here and it wasn’t.
“They want to show Paul Mariner right now that they deserve to be in the squad,” he added. “And the way they play, it wasn’t an easy game to play. Johnson, Koevermans had great games and not only them. It was a great unit, difficult to find some space at times to break them down.
“But overall I think 1-1 was a fair result.”
There was plenty of action in the opening 10 minutes with Toronto falling victim to an early goal that was all too easy on a 31 C night before 20,071 at BMO Field.
Jan Gunnar Solli tapped in a cross from Brandon Barklage on the right in the fourth minute after the Red Bulls strikers moved to the ball to the flank from the centre. The Norwegian midfielder got behind the heart of the Toronto defence, with goalie Milos Kocic at his mercy.
But Koevermans, with his seventh goal in seven games and fifth in his last four, tied it two minutes later when he rose unmarked to head in a Torsten Frings corner.
Reggie Lambe broke in on goal minutes later when a deflection fell his way. He outraced the New York defence and beat the onrushing goalie but defenders Wilman Conde and Heath Pearce managed to clear the ball before it crossed the line.
After the game, Mariner applauded Lambe for not going down and looking for the penalty. At the same time, he noted Lambe’s youth, as if to say a more experienced player would have used the contact to more effect.
Cooper almost put the Red Bulls ahead in the 44th but his shot, off a play almost a mirror image of the first goal, hit the goalpost. Koevermans came close seconds later poking a dangerous Frings free kick just wide.
Henry shot just wide early in the second half, capping a move he himself had triggered.
The Ashtone Morgan to Koevermans connection, so effective in recent games, almost paid off again in the 53rd minute but the big Dutch striker couldn’t get a boot on the cross.
Many of the fans came to see Henry and the New York captain did his best to stir the Red Bulls pot.
Henry’s influence was considerable. He took all the New York free kicks in the Toronto end and, in the 32nd minute, showed a deft touch when he controlled a high ball with his boot only to be hacked to the ground by an unimpressed Terry Dunfield.
As the game wore on, he dropped back into the midfield to play provider. His teammates were not always up to his vision, however.
Henry came close in the 76th when he almost put Joel Lindpere through with a terrific pass but defender Logan Emory poked the ball away at the last minute. At the other end, substitute Nick Soolsma poked a cross wide in the 84th.
Henry showed his commitment midway through the first half when, after New York lost the ball, he raced 40 yards-plus into the Toronto end in a bid to get it back.
And he demonstrated his disdain for TFC defenders, shoving Emory out of the way when they met off the ball.
The French star scored a world-class goal at BMO Field last season, giving New York a 1-1 tie with one minute remaining.
Toronto captain Frings was equally influential Saturday, taking set pieces and patrolling the midfield.
The two coaches were a total contrast on the sidelines. Mariner paced in front of his bench like a caged animal, gesticulating and yelling instructions or barking at the officials. New York’s Hans Backe was glued to his seat — an oasis of calm, as if relaxing on his porch rather than the edge of the pitch — rising only occasionally to get a better look.
Holding midfielder Dax McCarty was a key man for New York, stepping in to bolster the defence as needed and launching attacks from the back.
Fullback Jeremy Hall started for Toronto, recovered from the boot and ball to the face during a 3-0 win midweek in Montreal. Lambe came in for midfielder Julian de Guzman, who came on as a second-half substitute after stomach problems, in the only change to the starting 11.
Defender Doneil Henry did not dress because of an allergic reaction. Mexican international Rafa Marquez (thigh) sat out for New York.
Off the pitch, Toronto says it is entertaining loan offers for Ecuador winger Joao Plata.
Earl Cochrane, the team’s director of team and player operations, says loaning out the five-foot-two, 135-pound speedster will give the 20-year-old playing time while perhaps helping open the roster for another player.
Plata, currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, later told a reporter he was leaving the club Monday.
Cochrane said there was nothing to report on veteran Italian defender Alessandro Nesta other than he was a player whom they had discussed internally. Earlier in the week, Mariner called Nesta “one of our targets.”