The points that got away.
To say Saturday was a frustrating night for Ryan Nelsen and Toronto FC would be an understatement. Toronto FC lose 2-1 to 10-man Sporting Kansas City on a night it was equally shocking more goals weren't scored and more players weren't sent off.
The intensity of the match was superior to most across Major League Soccer and both teams proved worthy being considered among the best in the league. Unfortunately the referee, Ted Unkel, wasn't up for it and is nowhere the best MLS has to offer. It was Unkel's eighth game as head referee and serves as clear indicator he isn't yet ready for a game as such. The match was played at a pace and intensity beyond his experience and ability. Missed calls are one thing; a lack of consistency in calls is another. It played out as an awful combination for onlookers in a match that should be talked about for all the right sporting reasons rather than officiating futility.
Toronto FC heads on a four-game road trip as undeserved losers. Saturday was a measuring bar kind of match for Toronto, seeing where they stand against the 2013 MLS Cup Champions and top team in the Eastern Conference. Despite the loss, one has to feel good about the state of Toronto FC. They went shot for shot, blow for blow with Sporting Kansas City, no small feat for a team that's experienced an incredible amount of change within the squad over the last six months. Team progress is plain to see. There is a lot to like about this team and the performance. Just not the result.Here are my five thoughts after the 2-1 loss:
1) Say Unkel
– There is nothing worse in football than a result of a good game being determined by the shortcomings of a referee. Queue Unkel. Ted Unkel. The crowd at BMO left shaken and stirred. Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes suggestion Unkel did a 'good job' is laughable. It's obvious who came away with the positive result. Unkel was awful. Absolutely terrible.
The TSN Turning Point came in the 23rd minute. Michael Bradley played a wonderful through ball finding Gilberto behind the back-line. Gilberto took a touch before Aurelien Collin, the last man back, clumsily tackled him from behind, taking down the player. No card from Unkel, not even a free-kick. "An under-12 ref could've got that one," said Toronto FC Head Coach Ryan Nelsen post-match of the non-call. And he's spot on. Gilberto was in alone. Collin didn't make contact with the ball. As plain a foul as there is to see. It should have been a foul and sending off. Collin and Sporting Kansas City remained in the game because of the ref's cowardice to make the proper call. Chasing the game for upwards of 65 minutes would have put Kansas City in a negative context. The advantage was taken away from TFC because of the referee's incompetence.
After failing in that moment, Unkel lost control of the match. His consistency in decisions went out the window. Giving advantage one moment and taking it away the next, then brandishing two questionable yellows to Jackson and Justin Morrow sent the Toronto FC players, coaching staff, and home crowd into a state of complete frustration. The ref became tentative, and failed to get into proper positions to make subsequent calls. It became a mess.
Skip to the 69th minute, this time Igor Juliao as last man is beaten by Dominic Oduro down the right flank on the counter. No Sporting Kansas City player could stick with Oduro all night. Again, Oduro past the backline and in all alone before Juliao reaches out, arm extended and pulls the TFC winger down by the jersey. Last man back and takes away a scoring opportunity – automatic red, right? Nope. A yellow issued to Juliao. Another missed sending off. The suggestion the pull-back/foul doesn't stop a clear scoring chance on the play is a faulty one. Oduro was a step behind the last man and multiple steps past the entire back-line. Yes, the ball was wide, but Oduro – the fastest player on the field – one-on-one versus a goalkeeper is as clear-cut a scoring chance as you'll see in my books. If that's not a scoring chance, I'm not sure what is. The goalkeeper was back on his line, and there was no way he'd beat Oduro to the ball. And the suggestion the players recovery runs would have caught the speedy Oduro is a pipe dream. If Unkel wasn't in a position to see the back-line and how far Oduro was past it, the lineman, who was trying to keep up with the play, should have helped with the decision. Instead, no red was shown and Kansas City let off the hook. Not good enough from a referee at this level.
The Sporting Kansas City sending off eventually came with Matt Besler falling victim of the dreaded make up call. Besler's second 'bookable offence' coming in the 75th minute may have been a foul, but hardly a yellow. Oduro earned that card for Besler, as much as Collin and Juliao had earned prior sending offs to no avail. Instead of finding the winner a man up with 15 minutes to go, Toronto FC conceded. Salt in the wound. The wound was opened much earlier, and Unkel's attempt to heal was futile. One has to wonder how the game would have played out with Toronto FC a man up for over an hour. Or what may have happened if Juliao was also sent off, as he should have been. Unkel took that away. A porous refereeing display.2) Jackson Three (misses)
– The Brazilian may have scored in the 16th minute, a calm finish on a wonderful through-ball by Oduro, but a lack of composure and touch in front of goal in the second half was the co-culprit in the loss. Jackson missed three absolute sitters over the second 45. Gilberto twice played provider, putting it on the platter for the TFC winger. Gilberto found Jackson on the overlap, only for the Brazilian to put the ball on his right foot before passing it into the arms of a diving Andy Gruenebaum. The second service, a sublime ball by Gilberto to Jackson on the far post with the latter getting the finish all-wrong. The third miss was an Oduro ball played through the six-yard box. How it does not simply hit Jackson and go in is beyond me. Instead, a swing and scuff and the ball miraculously stays out of the net. Three missed chances by Jackson, to go along with TFC hitting the post twice in the first half, plus Doneil Henry swinging and almost missing while wide open on the penalty spot in the dying minutes stand out as missed opportunities. The chances were manufactured. The finish was simply not there this night. Hence even more frustration.3) Outstanding Oduro
– The outside right midfielder was unquestionably Toronto FC's Man of the Match. Sporting Kansas City had no answer to Oduro's speed down the right flank. Seth Sinovic looked like a pylon all night. The entire Kansas City back four were left in his dust, and it wasn't just his speed, but Oduro's touch on the ball, service, and decision-making all of the highest quality. The attack-mindedness of TFC's wing players makes Toronto a constant threat on the counter. For what Oduro and Jackson give up defensively is more than made up in what they can do going forward. The preference to attack puts more pressure on TFC's fullbacks, as well as the centre-midfield players. Fortunately, these are positions of strength and the shape of Toronto's back six remains strong with intensity and commitment to match.4) Fantastic Feilhaber
– Kansas City's Benny Feilhaber and his standout second half performance lead his team to victory. The number 10 was everywhere on the night and did well to adapt against a strong Toronto FC central midfield. Feilhaber dropped deeper as the night went on, finding gaps in and around Collen Warner. His vision and commitment to the move started and led to Kansas City's first goal. His intelligence and freedom to roam in Peter Vermes system gives the team yet another standout player. Warner struggled to limit his creativity – an ultimate compliment to Feilhaber considering the outstanding form Warner has shown over the last three weeks.5) More than half way there
– Toronto FC's MLS season is beyond the midway point and the team is only three points off their total for all of last season. 26 points through 18 games is a solid return considering a stop-and-start schedule, various player movements, and an unfamiliar squad in need of games to find consistency. If one is not overwhelming positive about the product put forth, one is simply being negative for the sake of it. The team has belief and difference-makers throughout the squad. General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko joined the pre-match show on TSN 1050 and said he's happy with his team and will continue to keep his options open to improve the squad before the transfer window closes August 6th. Bezbatchenko has already found drastic in-season improvements to the team that started the season. The team has depth and competition for spots for the first time in the club's history. The team is playoff quality and third place in the standings provides further evidence to the quality on the field. A rematch between Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City come playoff time would be something to see.
Next up for Toronto FC is a trip to second place DC United (10-5-4) Wednesday night on TSN 1050 Radio.