Toronto FC finally had something to celebrate Saturday, a rare win – and a first at BMO Field since Aug. 21, 2020.
Toronto (4-15-6) is still in the MLS basement, suffering through what coach Javier Perez calls a "very very tough year." But at least it has something to smile about, while putting a six-game losing streak and nine-game winless run (0-7-2) behind it.
"We had a lot of injured players. We didn't have any DPs (designated players) to start the game tonight but the players we had on the field, we had 11 warriors out there and everybody was behind them, supporting them in whatever way we could," said Perez.
"And they did a terrific performance against one of the hottest teams in the league."
It took Toronto's biggest and smallest players to pull it off.
Six-foot-five centre back Omar Gonzalez and five-foot-three Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo combined on the winning goal in the 79th minute. The giant defender, despite being surrounded by Nashville players, managed to contort his body to get a leg to a well-placed Soteldo free kick as he crashed the goal in front of the south stand at BMO Field.
Soteldo took the free kick quickly after captain Michael Bradley put the ball down, a ploy Toronto has used to great effect in the past.
The goal celebration was unbridled. "It was almost like winning a title," said Perez.
Soteldo jumped into Bradley's arms, in what looked like a father and son moment. A grinning Gonzalez pumped his fist. The crowd of 9,892 roared.
"I can't stress enough how big this win was for us. ... Things haven't gone our way but we still show up every single day, to work hard, to push for those three points, to bring the energy," said Gonzalez. "And so to finally get a win at home, here at BMO (Field), it's beyond words. I mean, it's been a really crazy year.
"We get these three points and now we savour it. We live in it for tonight. For tomorrow even. And then it's time for all of us to focus on the next three points and the next win and how we're going to do that. It's something we just need to build off of."
C.J. Sapong had tied the game up five minutes earlier, scoring his 81st career goal in his 300th MLS regular-season game. The goal survived a lengthy video review for offside, with Randall Leal getting the assist for feeding Sapong in front of goal after the Hany Mukhtar pass that prompted the review.
Jacob Shaffelburg had given Toronto the lead in the 18th minute with a stylish strike.
It was the first win for Toronto since July 24 (a 2-1 decision in Chicago) — and its first victory at BMO Field in seven games (1-2-4) since the club returned north of the border. Toronto's last win on home soil was almost 13 months ago, a 1-0 decision over Vancouver.
It was also a timely triumph. Toronto hosts York United FC next Wednesday in the quarterfinal of the Canadian Championship, which TFC has targeted in a bid to make something out of its nightmarish season.
"The team tonight showed its character," said Perez. "This is a team that is ready. This is a team that is going to give everything until the end.
"It would be very easy just to give up, but it's not in the nature of this team."
Nashville (10-3-11) suffered only its third loss of the season. Sitting second in the East after a 1-0 win in Montreal last weekend, the Tennessee team arrived having won three straight and was unbeaten in five (4-0-1).
"Too many players below par today, which was very much out of character for the group. However, the second (half) looked brighter in spots," said Nashville coach Gary Smith.
The two teams have been heading in different directions.
Toronto had picked up just one point out of a possible 24 in eight matches since tying Nashville 1-1 on Aug. 1 at BMO Field. In contrast, Nashville had earned 14 out of a possible 21 in its seven subsequent outings (4-1-2).
Toronto did not start any of its designated players with reigning league MVP Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore out injured and Soteldo on the bench. Soteldo, whom Perez said had been ill during the week, came on in the 64th minute.
Toronto went ahead early on a beautiful goal by Shaffelburg, capping off an eight-pass buildup that started with goalkeeper Alex Bono. Brazilian fullback Auro found Shaffelburg with a long, looping ball behind the Nashville backline, with Canadian defender Alistair Johnston victimized on the play.
Shaffelburg danced around goalkeeper Joe Willis and slotted the ball home for his second career MLS goal. It came on Toronto's lone shot on target in the first half (Nashville had two).
And it was poetic justice for the 21-year-old from Port Williams, N.S., who was denied a legitimate goal Tuesday in a 1-0 loss to Inter Miami.
In that game, the on-field officials and video review could not confirm what most spectators and TV viewers saw — Shaffelburg's shot crossing the line before it was bundled out by the Miami 'keeper. TFC's official Twitter account couldn't resist a jab four days later, tweeting a video of Saturday's goal with the caption "Can confirm: It crossed the line."
It was Toronto's first goal in 230 minutes — since Aug. 27. And it came after a nervy start from the home side, which gave the ball away repeatedly in the early going.
Bradley was cautioned in the 39th minute, meaning he will be suspended for the next MLS game for yellow card accumulation. The skipper made his 200th regular-season appearance for Toronto while defender Eriq Zavaleta made his 150th appearance for TFC in all competitions.
Perez made four changes to his midweek team with Shaffelburg, Gonzalez, Zavaleta and Dom Dwyer coming in. Chris Mavinga and Soteldo dropped to the bench while Tsubasa Endoh was injured and Kemar Lawrence suspended after being red-carded last time out.
Former Toronto FC striker Sebastian Giovinco watched the game from a box alongside Altidore.
Second-year Nashville came into the game unbeaten in three meetings with Toronto. The Tennessee team ended Toronto's 2020 season with a 1-0 first-round playoff victory, and defeated TFC 3-2 on June 23 at Nissan Stadium before the August draw.
Pozuelo (lower-body injury) was missing for a third straight game. Ayo Akinola and Ralph Priso were also out injured while Nick DeLeon and Jayden Nelson were sidelined by health and safety protocols.
The game featured an all-Canadian officiating crew with referee Pierre-Luc Lauziere, assistant referees Michael Barwegen and Lyes Arfa, fourth official David Gantar and VAR officials Carol Anne Chenard and Philippe Briere.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press