By Toronto FC’s less-than-lofty standards in years past, it was a very comfortable day at the office.
A Jermain Defoe goal, his seventh of the season in Major League Soccer play, from the penalty spot was all that was needed to secure a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday.
It also ensured that this Toronto FC side, short of midfield general Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Julio Cesar, both in pre-World Cup camps with the United States and Brazil, respectively, continues to make hay in their absence.
Starting play on Saturday one place outside of the top-five positions that qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, Toronto also had anywhere between three and six games in hand on each of the five teams above it in the standing, a very encouraging sign for a team still looking for its first ever playoff appearance.
An idyllic day at BMO Field – it was 25 degrees Celsius at kickoff – took a turn for the worst for the home side during the pre-game warmup though when Brazilian striker Gilberto took a knock and was forced to miss his start in the attack alongside Defoe. The absence means that Gilberto, a designated player earning $1.2-million this season, enters the two-week MLS World Cup break still awaiting his first goal in TFC colours.
That turn of events handed Canadian midfielder Kyle Bekker a chance to further stake a permanent claim to a starting midfield spot, and allowed Englishman Luke Moore to move up top to partner Defoe.
The home side began the game full of energy, harrying and hustling San Jose every time it took possession, and generally ensuring much of the early action took place in the visitors’ half.
Shots were hard to come by, though, and it wasn’t until the 12th minute that TFC’s Jackson got the crowd into the game by unleashing a drive that flew wide left. Better anticipation from Moore or Jonathan Osorio would have seen a better return from a TFC free kick a few minutes later that Jon Busch failed to hold in the San Jose goal, but the guy who should have been on the end of it, Defoe, was the man taking the free kick.
It was left to rookie defender Nick Hagglund, starting on the right side of defence on Saturday, to really light up the afternoon with a couple of dazzling pieces of skill. A pair of audacious volleys, the first that was a saved and the second that went wide left, brought the crowd to its feet and left it hungry for more.
It didn’t have to wait long, as a few minutes later Hagglund was blocked from getting to a cross by the forearm of former TFC forward Alan Gordon and after a few minutes of deliberation, referee Fortis Bazakos pointed to the spot.
For the second consecutive week Defoe stepped up to do the honours, sending Busch the wrong way and firing the ball into the left-hand side of the net. It was the Englishman’s fourth game-winning goal of the season, in just eight games, and he now stands one goal shy of equaling Dwayne De Rosario’s team record of five, set back in 2010.
The visitors had to wait until the 64th minute for their first shot on goal, a speculative 45-yard volley from Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, but moments later the sellout crowd of 22,591 was on its feet as Ghanaian forward Dominic Oduro, obtained Friday in a trade with the Columbus Crew, made his debut off the bench in the place of Jackson.
Sporting streaks of Columbus Crew yellow in his hair that you would assume he’ll be getting rid of as soon as possible, Oduro had a chance to make an instant impact with his new club, as he chased after a lofted through-ball. But sensing the danger, Earthquakes defender Clarence Goodson handled the ball to stop the attack dead, earning a yellow card for his trouble.
And Hagglund could only glance his header wide of the far post from the resulting free kick, but it was never going to be enough to take the sheen off a fine afternoon for the young defender and his team, now up to fourth in the East, at least for a couple of hours until Columbus plays later Saturday.