Well, this Canadian Championship Cup exercise we're all enjoying certainly took an interesting twist on Canada Day. The big boys from Toronto FC – undefeated at home and in the tournament – came out flat, got outworked, ate some questionable officiating, and lost 1-0 to the USL-1 Vancouver Whitecaps.
TFC sent out their “A” lineup, and spent most of the first half watching their lower-league opponents play a running game of keepaway. No shots to speak of, but no chance for the homestanding MLSers to get any rhythm of consistency.
An enraged Toronto coach John Carver benched three of his A-listers – striker Danny Dichio, midfielder Laurent Robert and Rohan Ricketts – at the break, but ended up wrecking on an inferno-hot Jay Nolly tending the Lotus Land goal.
Oh, and the ref.
Multiple points of attack on this game. Let's start with the officials.
Two crucial calls – both killers for TFC. Late in the first half, Toronto captain Jim Brennan got his arms around ‘Caps captain Jeff Clarke. Martin Nash easily converted the penalty kick, for what turned out to be the game's only goal. Then, late in the game, Jeff Cunningham kicked in the afterburners, greased the D, and popped home a lovely running roller to the far post. Except it was called offside.
Carver refused to comment, though you could have grilled ribs on his forehead. “I'll let you guys decide,” he told the assembled scribes. “And I'll be very interested to see what you write.”
From where I was standing, I had no replays, and did not get an ideal view of either call. But I asked around, and the folks I talked to were split. Half thought the penalty was a good call, half didn't. Half thought the offside was obvious, the rest felt Cunningham had been robbed. Interestingly, everyone – on both sides of both calls – was pretty adamant. Widespread split opinion, in other words, but no one was in any doubt whatsoever. That doesn't happen much.
Beyond that, though, this was Toronto FC's first-ever home cup match. Almost 19,000 people in the stands, a thumping, thundering mass singing of O Canada, and such a soggy, stuttering effort.
Vancouver, needing a win to stay in contention, worked their backsides off. Toronto responded with fussy, tentative, flat-footed passing. Always, at the edge of the Vancouver box, the Torontos looked for the extra pass instead of shooting. Amado Guevara, frequently open in midfield with the ball at this feet, waited … and … waited … before passing. Vancouver didn't need nearly that much time to shut down the options.
TFC could still have easily won going away. Nolly made some blinding saves for the 'Caps, and TFC poured forward at the end, hitting posts, forcing saves, and Cunningham obviously was or wasn't offside depending on who you talked to.
With just two matches let in this round robin mini-tournament, TFC is trailing the Montreal Impact by three points, and is three goals down in goal difference. This means that unless they blow the Whitecaps to bits in next Wednesday's Vancouver leg, the Impact can eliminate Toronto – and move into the CONCACAF Champions Cup – with a draw at BMO Field on July 22.
Splendid heart and hustle by the Vancouvers, and a dangerous wake-up call for TFC.
Intriguing sidenote: We write all the time about the unquenchable passion of the fans at BMO Field, and the huge lift they give the home side. Well, according to both Nash and Nolly after the match, the revved-up, raging, raucous red riot squad gives a big boost to the visitors, as well. Both players – beaming – said it had been a great experience to play in Toronto, and that they'd love to have an atmosphere like that for every game they play.
It's still a home-field advantage, but not nearly the road-team disadvantage that perhaps we all thought.