Robert Earnshaw scored twice as Toronto FC finally gave fans something to cheer about Saturday afternoon, snapping a 15-game MLS winless streak with a 2-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City under the dome at Rogers Centre.
Kansas City (1-1-0) finished 40 points ahead of Toronto last season but came out sluggishly, as it had done the previous week before rallying to defeat Philadelphia 3-1. The second half was a different story but Toronto weathered the storm until the 77th minute when Argentine striker Claudio Bieler, taking to a flick-on header from C.J. Sapong, fired a right-footed shot past Joe Bendik to cut the lead to 2-1.
It was a nail-biting finish for home fans as Kansas City stormed the Toronto end and Bendik made a fine reflex save off Bieler in the dying minutes to preserve the victory. They then had to endure five minutes of stoppage time that saw Graham Zusi fire a shot over the Toronto crossbar.
Bendik also had to parry a Zusi free kick with time running down. Zusi had one more dead ball chance but KC couldn’t capitalize.
Toronto (1-1-0) looked bright from the beginning, with Earnshaw full of energy and newly acquired English winger John Bostock showing real quality on the wing.
The win, the first for new manager Ryan Nelsen, was a badly needed tonic for a struggling franchise.
Toronto, the worst team in MLS last season at 5-21-8, had not won a league game since July 28 when it beat Colorado 2-1. It came into the game just three matches away from the MLS winless record set by Real Salt Lake in 2005-06.
Kansas City saw its 13-game league win streak snapped — one shy of the club record.
It was the first MLS regular-season game on the artificial turf at Rogers Centre, although Toronto FC has played CONCACAF Champions League and friendlies there before.
Saturday’s crowd of 25,991 was a far cry from the raucous, streamer-throwing 47,658 who jammed the dome last March for a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final with David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
But they had something to cheer early when Earnshaw punished a Kansas City defensive gaffe courtesy of a poor pass by centre back Matt Besler across goal. Defensive partner Aurelien Collin couldn’t get to the ball before Earnshaw nipped in and fired a shot past Jimmy Nielsen in the third minute for his first goal as a member of Toronto FC.
Credit Toronto’s Hogan Ephraim for putting pressure on Besler, who was making his 100th MLS start.
The goal was early vindication for Nelsen, who has been preaching pressure from his players when the other team has the ball.
The Kansas City goalie was out of sorts further in the 16th minute when he was taken down by John Califf and Darren O’Dea on a Toronto free kick. While Nielsen stamped his foot and gesticulaled at the referee for alleged mistreatment, O’Dea was face down and needed a visit from the trainer before returning to the fray,
Toronto made it 2-0 in the 21st minute via an Earnshaw penalty after Bostock, after a couple of stepovers, was chopped down by Paulo Nagamura during a nifty run through traffic in the penalty box. O’Dea had found Bostock with an accurate long ball as three Toronto attackers ran at KC.
There was contact but Bostock went down theatrically to seal the deal.
Earnshaw drove the ball into the corner of the net before celebrating with a front somersault capped by something out of a bullfighter’s playbook, as if sweeping a cape to his side.
Earnshaw is the only player to record a hat trick in every professional division in England, including the FA Cup and League Cup. The Welsh striker came close to adding MLS to that list in only his second game in North America.
The visitors looked better organized in the second half, coming at Toronto but failed to crack the home defence despite a string of corners and free kicks.
But it could have been 3-0 in the 53rd minute after a promising Toronto move that ended in disappointment when Reggie Lambe drove the ball high.
Sapong, who came on as a substitute, hit the crossbar with a header off a corner in the 61st minute as Toronto wobbled in the second half.
The game grew chippier as the visitors’ frustration grew and there were several shoving matches.
Ironically the game could have been played outdoors given sunny five-degree weather at kickoff. But it was scheduled for indoors given the long-range planning needed to stage the game.
South of the border, meanwhile, the Colorado Rapids home opener against the Philadelphia Union was put back a day to Sunday because of the threat of heavy snow.
Bostock started on the right wing in the lone change to the Toronto lineup that lost 1-0 in Vancouver last weekend. The 21-year-old Bostock, on loan from Tottenham, was a teenage phenom who made his debut for Crystal Palace at 15.
He left to rousing applause when he was substituted in the 82nd minute.
Notes: Fans arriving early for the game may have run into the long, colourful lineup for Toronto’s Comicon nearby, complete with fans in Star Wars and Star Trek gear.