You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
It’s an apt an idiom as there exists to sum up Toronto FC’s 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution on Saturday, a defeat that condemned head coach Ryan Nelsen’s squad to a three-game losing streak and its first sub-.500 record of this team’s much-ballyhooed 2014 Major League Soccer season.
Despite spending much of the franchise’s first seven seasons as a donkey by MLS standards, Toronto FC’s transformation into a North American soccer thoroughbred has been well documented. But even with Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto on the field together for just the third time this season, the team had to rely on the opposition to find a way past Bobby Shuttleworth in the New England net, benefiting from fortuitous deflection off the foot of defender A.J. Soares to take a sixth-minute lead with a goal that was credited to Jackson.
But the confidence imbued by that early advantage was short-lived. Despite dictating possession for much of the first 20 minutes and with a few opportunities to double the lead, TFC then simply sat back, inviting pressure onto themselves, and when 20-year-old centre back Doneil Henry carelessly gave away possession, New England rookie Patrick Mullins didn’t need a second invitation to knot the score at 1-1 with his first career MLS goal.
Henry’s day went from bad to worse with eight minutes remaining, as a shot from Mullins hit his arm and referee Mark Geiger never hesitated, pointing to the spot for a penalty kick that Lee Nguyen buried past Julio Cesar for New England’s first-ever win at BMO Field.
“At the end of the day, one costly giveaway from a centre half changed the game and I take full responsibility for that,” said a dejected Henry afterwards. “The second-half penalty, it’s unfortunate. There’s no way I meant to handball it, I’m not even looking at the ball. I just tried to put my body in the way.”
As the youngest TFC player on the field, Henry’s time will come again. Certainly Nelsen wasn’t about to heap more misery on the youngster after the game, choosing to accentuate the positives of Henry’s first game since Week 3’s 3-0 loss in Salt Lake City.
“That’s wrong. I think that’s completely wrong,” Nelsen said of anyone looking to blame his young centre back. “He’s trying to be positive. He made a pass and that shot could have gone anywhere but unfortunately for him it went in the back of the net but besides that he played very well.”
Would that the same could be said of Toronto’s strikers. Despite 15 attempts on goal, only three were on target, and one of those came courtesy of a New England boot. While Defoe seemed a little more lethargic than his usual livewire self – likely due to his injury-enforced absence for all of April – his strike partner, Gilberto, was the chief culprit in front of goal, with four spurned opportunities to his name. But while the Brazilian is still waiting to open his account for his new club, it’s just a matter of time, according to someone who knows a thing or two about finding the back of the net.
“He’s doing everything right, sometimes it happens where, as a forward, you get chances and you are just so close,” Defoe said afterwards. “But all the lads are behind him. Once the first one goes in then he’ll score loads. The chance he had in the first half just missed the post and in the second half the header went to the inside of the post and it came back to the goalkeeper.
“Maybe on another day it hits the inside of the post and it goes in or it comes out to someone else. It’s just a case for him to keep going. He’s getting the chances; he’s getting to the right position so he’s doing well.”
Nelsen bemoaned a retaken corner kick in the buildup to the penalty kick, saying he’d never seen anything like it in all his years in soccer, but insisted he wasn’t trying to make excuses. For once, TFC had dominated possession in a game – 60.1 per cent to New England’s 39.9 per cent – but as anyone who watched Bayern Munich’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid recently can tell you, possession doesn’t mean a whole lot when you can’t put the ball in the net.
“It’s not like we didn’t create any chances today,” Kyle Bekker said afterwards. “If it goes the other way, we win the game and everything is great.”