Harmse scores winner; Attakora-Gyan shuts down Whitecaps' attack
By Mark Polishuk
TFC open Canadian Championship with win Watch highlights on Toronto FC TV
TORONTO -- With Toronto FC in the midst of a stretch of nine games in 36 days that included both a full MLS schedule and the first three matches of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, it was imperative that the Reds' reserve players step up to give the regulars a break and to do their part to help keep the team at the top of all competitions.
After Wednesday night's 1-0 win against Vancouver Whitecaps, at least two of the reserves can count themselves as having delivered on the team's needs. Nana Attakora-Gyan played a strong 90 minutes at center back in his first start of the season, and Kevin Harmse stepped into his old midfield role to deliver the game-winning goal.
"I thought Nana and Kevin were fantastic in their first starts of the season," said TFC interim head coach Chris Cummins. "The two of them have gone in and did a great job. It's a squad game and I'm going to need the full squad. To the boys that have stepped it, they were first-class."
Harmse's goal came in just the third minute of the match. Amado Guevara sent a pass in to Dwayne De Rosario, who streaked down the left side of the field, deked out a Vancouver defender and sent a perfect cross to Harmse on the right side of goalmouth. The midfielder merely had to get his head on the ball to put it in the back of the net for his first goal in over two years.
"Great cross from DeRo, and [it was] nothing more than a midfielder getting in the box, trying to make a difference, trying to earn a spot on the team, especially in the midfield role," Harmse said. "I'm happy that Chris and Daso [assistant coach Nick Dasovic] had the confidence to put me in there."
Harmse got the call in the midfield due to a minor injury to Sam Cronin, who Cummins described as "feeling a little stiff." The role was a familiar one for Harmse, who has primarily been used as a central midfielder throughout his MLS career and time with the Canadian national team. But because Harmse had played some center back for (of all teams) the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2004 and 2005, he was tried out on the backline near the end of last season in Toronto when the Reds were struggling to find reliable help at the position.
He started the 2009 season as TFC's first choice at center back, but after five up-and-down performances, Harmse was replaced in the lineup by Marco Velez. Harmse had played just 11 previous minutes in Toronto's previous three games before getting the call on Wednesday.
With Cronin not expected to miss much time, if any, and Carl Robinson a fixture at the other central midfield position, Cummins is pleased to now be faced with the question of how to give minutes to another deserving midfielder.
"Kevin's giving me a massive problem and I love that," Cummins said. "He's gone out there, he's done the job, he's broke it up, he's passing when he's had to and he's got in the box and he's got the winner."
Harmse said that he had some difficulties in re-adjusting to his old position but was pleased to get another chance in his preferred spot in the first XI.
"I didn't think I had a great game. The goal was excellent for me, but there's still things I need to work on," Harmse said. "I'm going to say I don't like playing center back, but playing center midfield is much more enjoyable. I'm glad I got the chance and gave him a problem."
The Harmse goal was the highlight of a strong attacking performance from TFC, who held a 9-2 advantage in shots on goal. De Rosario, in his first start since suffering a hamstring injury on April 19 in Dallas, was a terror on the left side all game long, and he, Guevara and Chad Barrett each had three shots in the match.
While Cummins said he wished the team could have scored more than one goal, he was happy that the formation worked as well as it did.
"We had a game plan. We tried to open the game up, we played with two out-and-out wingers with DeRo and Pablo [Vitti]," Cummins said. "We wanted to stretch the game, hit diagonals and cause them a lot of problems so we could get Amado on the ball and Harmsey on the ball."
The Reds dominated long stretches of the game, and aside from one dangerous attempt from Whitecaps forward Marlon James in the 85th minute, TFC kept the Vancouver attack in check for virtually the entire match. Attakora-Gyan was a big factor in this defensive effort, keeping the big Whitecaps forward pairing of James and Charles Gbeke occupied from the center back position.
Attakora-Gyan had played just one minute all season heading into Wednesday's game. The young defender suffered an injured hip flexor in February while training with Canada's under-20 national team.
"They had two big guys. I thought with my pace I was able to stick with him, but it was tough the full 90 [minutes]," Attakora-Gyan said. "It was my first full 90 since U-20 qualifying so it's been a while. I felt it a little early in the game, but after that it felt all right."
The victory puts Toronto in the lead of the second annual Canadian Championship. The Reds and USL-1 sides Vancouver and Montreal will play a round-robin, home-and-home tournament to determine Canada's representative in the 2009-2010 CONCACAF Champions League.
TFC were second to Montreal in last year's tournament in large part because of a home defeat suffered to Whitecaps on Canada Day. Cummins said his team entered this season's event with an increased focus, in spite of the parallel challenge of also staying competitive in Major League Soccer and the difficulties in keeping the side healthy over the course of all these games.
Wednesday's result, for the coach, was a case of so far, so good.
"We're chuffed at the result, we had a point to prove obviously from last year," Cummins said. "I thought we should've gone on and won the game a little more comfortably than we did. But we got through the game with no injuries, rested a couple [of players] at the right times, and we're thoroughly delighted with the three points."
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com.