Toronto FC has made it to the round of 16 at the MLS is Back tournament, wrapping up a challenging first round with a 0-0 tie with the New England Revolution.
The result left Toronto atop Group C, pending the result of the final group game between Montreal and D.C. United later in the day. While a D.C. win would leave it tied with Toronto and New England on five points, Toronto can finish no lower than second based on tiebreakers.
The group winner takes on one of the four-best third-place finishers on Sunday in the first knockout round. The runner-up faces the Philadelphia Union, second in Group A, on Saturday.
“I’m pleased,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “I’d be hard-pressed to say that there’s another team at a tournament that’s had as difficult a schedule as we have in playing two games at 9 a.m. and one off of two days rest.
“So again it shows the strength and resiliency of our group. Even the depth, with some of our young guys coming in and helping us out.”
Toronto extended its club-record unbeaten regular-season run to 15 (6-0-9) since a 2-0 loss Aug. 3 at the New York Red Bulls. And with group games counting in the regular-season standings, it now stands second in the Eastern Conference at 2-0-3 behind Columbus (3-0-1).
New England, now with a 1-1-3 record in the season standings, also assured itself of moving on.
The knockout round could see Toronto field a potent strike force of Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola.
“They’re two strong guys who are going to be a handful for defenders to deal with in the moments we use them together,” Vanney said.
“We’ll see how we play it out as we move through the tournament and into the rest of the year,” he added.
Altidore, who has been working his way back to full fitness, made his tournament debut in the 86th minute and had an impact within 30 seconds, finding Akinola racing toward the penalty box. The 20-year-old forward was taken down by DeJuan Jones but, after video review, it was ruled a free kick just outside the box and not a penalty.
“Jozy’s more than just a target striker. He’s a fantastic soccer player,” Vanney said. “Obviously we know he can score goals. He provides us with a lot of different things.”
Akinola said he initially thought it was a penalty, but changed his mind after reviewing the skid marks made by the collision.
New England wanted a penalty in the 80th minute when substitute Gustavo Bou went down in the penalty box making contact with Michael Bradley, but no call was made.
Akinola, who came in the game with five goals at the tournament, had several chances to add to his total. The best came in the 79th minute when, after taking an Alejandro Pozuelo through ball, he outmuscled a defender only to see goalkeeper Matt Turner get a limb to the ball.
It was 29 C for kickoff, with the sapping Florida heat feeling like 36 C.
“As the game goes [on], it’s a grind. ... No clouds, no cover from the sun,” Vanney said. “For the guys, it’s gritting it out. Your mind naturally is telling you that you need to try to take a rest. But you know you also can’t take a rest. And then you’ve got 11 guys trying to co-ordinate when they should be resting at the same time.”
It was a game of two halves Tuesday, with Toronto running the first and New England coming out more aggressive in the second half.
“We got better in the second half, getting a little tighter on them and winning some second balls,” New England coach Bruce Arena said. “And being better with our passing. We had the opportunity to get at them a little bit.”
Toronto outshot New England 14-10 (5-2 in shots on target) and had 60.4-per-cent possession.
Vanney made two changes to his starting 11, bringing in goalkeeper Alex Bono for Quentin Westberg and midfielder Nick DeLeon for Tsubasa Endoh. It was Bono’s first league start since May 8, 2019, when Toronto lost 2-0 to Atlanta. Westberg had started the past 33 regular-season and playoff games.
Bono made a key save in the 74th minute, using his body to stop Polish striker Adam Buksa from point-blank range after a long pass found Brandon Bye behind the Toronto defence.
Vanney had hoped Jonathan Osorio, who has been dealing with a quad issue, might be ready for Tuesday’s game, but the Canadian midfielder did not make the match-day 23.
Arena, whose team played last Friday, made six changes to his starting 11.
Spanish playmaker Carles Gil, who has been dealing with a lingering foot issue, did not dress for New England. Gil sat on the bench with a walking boot on his leg foot.
Hamilton-born U.S. international forward Teal Bunbury, the son of former Canadian international Alex Bunbury, captained the Revs. Canadian Tajon Buchanan started on the right wing for New England.
New England did not manage a shot on target in the first half with Toronto, which put three shots on goal, having 68.1 per cent of the possession.
Canadian midfielder Noble Okello, who turned 20 Monday, made his MLS debut off the bench in the 68th minute.
Toronto opened the tournament with a 2-2 tie with D.C. United before beating the Montreal Impact 4-3. New England defeated Montreal 1-0 and tied D.C. United 1-1.