Goals by Deandre Kerr and Kosi Thompson helped Toronto FC rebound from a week of turmoil surrounding disgruntled Italian star Federico Bernardeschi with a much-needed 2-1 win over D.C. United in MLS play Saturday.
An 87th-minute goal by D.C.’s Christian Benteke made for a tense ending but Toronto hung on through six minutes of added time.
Bernardeschi, the club’s leading scorer, was benched by coach Bob Bradley after an explosive outburst following last week’s 1-0 loss at Austin FC with the Italian star complaining about the team’s tactics.
Despite the unrest, Toronto (3-5-7) started with purpose and went ahead in the 14th minute when an unmarked Kerr, who was starting for Bernardeschi, headed home a Lorenzo Insigne corner. It was the second goal of the season for the 20-year-old Kerr.
The goal ended a 418-minute scoring drought in league play for Toronto, dating back to April 29 when CJ Sapong scored in a 1-0 win over visiting New York City FC.
It was essentially one-way traffic in the first half with D.C coach Wayne Rooney making a statement on his team’s indifferent play with a triple change in first-half injury time, sending on Taxi Fountas, Andy Najar and Pedro Santos. Toronto could have led 4-0 going into the break before an announced crowd of 27,065.
D.C. looked better to open the second half but Toronto added to the lead in the 72nd minute with Insigne playing provider to Thompson on a counterattack.
Insigne had started the break with a fine cross-field pass, with the ball eventually finding its way to Richie Laryea. His cross came to Insigne, who unselfishly fed an onrushing Thompson in the penalty box. It was the second career MLS goal for the 20-year-old Thompson.
D.C. pulled one back late with Benteke poking a rebound home from close range after Toronto goalkeeper Sean Johnson had made two fine saves off a corner. It was Benteke’s seventh of the season.
Toronto had lost its last four league outings and won just one of its previous 11 outings (1-5-5) in all competitions.
In contrast, D.C. (5-6-4) had lost just one of its previous seven matches (1-4-2) and had shut out its last two opponents.
Bernardeschi, who has three goals and three assists, has not scored in nine matches. But he hit a sore spot with his postgame comments last week.
“We don’t have any idea to play,” he said.
“I think this city, the fans, everybody, don’t deserve this,” he added. “And I think maybe we need to change something. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea how we play, because this is the real problem for me. It’s impossible to play like this when we play without (an) idea.”
Bradley called the comments “out of line” and said the Italian would not figure in Saturday’s match. He called it a “coach’s decision” rather than a disciplinary move, saying Bernardeschi’s future with the club was not in doubt.
But the size of the rift seemed clear when Bernardeschi, ever present in the Toronto lineup this season up until Saturday, responded with an Instagram story that listed all the team’s statistical categories he was first or second in.
The giant BMO banner that reads “Better Together” that is brought onto the midfield circle before kickoff seemed to speak volumes Saturday. So did the “Free Fede” banner in the south stand.
Bradley was booed loudly when his name was announced before kickoff. There were also chants of “We want Bradley out” from the south stand, home to the supporters groups, during the early going.
But Toronto’s play soon improved the mood of the fans and BMO Field was soon rocking in a return to happier times.
D.C. goalkeeper Tyler Miller was called into action in the second minute, getting a hand to a Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty header off a Sapong cross following a quick Toronto free kick. Three minutes later, Insigne showed his class with a beautifully curled cross-field pass that found Kerr only to see the offside flag go up.
A Matt Hedges header off an Insigne corner in the 14th minute flashed just wide of the D.C. goalpost.
Toronto appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty in the 28th minute after a ball bounced up and off the hand of Ted Ku-DiPietro. Marshall-Rutty had another glorious chance in the 35th but fired his shot wide.
The visitors’ first real chance came in the 44th minute when Johnson used his chest to block a close-range shot from Benteke. Johnson stopped a Mateusz Klich free kick in the dying seconds of the half.
Insigne hammered a shot just high in the 56th minute. Miller, who likes to play sweeper-keeper, was almost caught in no man’s land soon after but dodged a bullet.
D.C. captain Russell Canouse then went down hard after a mid-air collision with Sapong going after a ball. The midfielder landed on his head and did not return after gingerly leaving the pitch.
D.C.’s Lewis O’Brien shot just high in the 67th minute.
Toronto was without injured defenders Sigurd Rosted and Shane O’Neill, midfielders Michel Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Victor Vazquez and Alonso Coello and forward Adama Diomande.
Insigne, who missed last week’s game with a foot injury, returned as TFC captain. Midfielder Brandon Servania had to come off in the 19th minute after picking up a knock.
D.C. won 3-2 when the two teams met in the season opener Feb. 25, rallying with goals in the 90th and 98th minute.
Toronto hosts the Chicago Fire on Wednesday before playing at Minnesota United on Saturday.