With all the hype surrounding the biggest game in its franchise history, Toronto FC gave its record crowd plenty to celebrate in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal – except a victory.
After a roaring start under the inspiration of 47,658 fans cheering them on, the Reds struck for two goals inside the opening 20 minutes for a 2-0 lead on the heavily favoured Los Angeles Galaxy. But David Beckham and company collected themselves and pushed back and got on the board later in the half. In the end Landon Donovan's 88th minute game-tying goal let the air out of the stadium as the match ended in a 2-2 draw.
With TFC being the clear underdogs against the defending MLS Cup champs, not many would have expected the match to be as entertaining as it turned out to be. And certainly no one could have seen the home team jumping out to a two goal lead. Despite what happened on the pitch, both teams praised the fans for filling the stadium and for creating an amazing atmosphere that will certainly be remembered as TFC’s biggest game and one of Toronto’s best moments in sports.
“It was amazing, everyone enjoyed it," said TFC striker Danny Koevermans. "It was fantastic playing in front of a big home crowd and of course it was a shame for us and for the people that they tied it in the last minute. If you ask me we should make BMO bigger or move here so we can always play in front of 40,000 people.”
Beckham clears away streamers strewn over a corner of the field. Fans threw the streamers at Beckham's direction every time he lined up for a corner kick
TFC Senior Director of Business Operations Paul Beirne was involved for months in the lead-up to the match. Although the preference was to play the game outdoors and at BMO Field, he was impressed with how the match came together.
"The supporters were spectacular - they've been working on this for months. They came in last night and did a lot of setting up and that set the tone for the atmosphere…the overall atmosphere was off the charts.
"It was another great moment for Toronto FC and our short history. It's another milestone for us and we're really pleased."
Despite all the concerns from the Galaxy about the quality of pitch heading into the game, the issue was downplayed after the match as players chose to focus on the incredible support shown by Toronto fans.
“It was great. I’m glad the game was staged here. Obviously I knew it was a bigger stadium and I knew these fans would fill it out,” said David Beckham who was pelted with streamers before every corner kick he took, but he was a good sport after the game.
“I think the streamers were a terrible idea during the game. Before the game a great idea. Little bit difficult taking corners like that. Overall I think everyone had fun. Obviously the fans saw their team score two goals, I’m sure they didn’t like seeing us score two goals. Overall it was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Players from both teams watch Luis Silva's header bounce just out of the reach of Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders. It was an incredible professional debut for the rookie who scored on the team that he adored growing up
TFC striker Danny Koevermans watches as Saunders leaps to grab the ball in the air. The Galaxy keeper came down on with his cleats on Kovermans leg. That angered the TFC forward who then pushed Saunders and both had to be separated. It is also believed that the keeper had landed outside box with the ball in his hands and should have resulted in a TFC free kick
As both teams walked out on the pitch, streamers rained down from upper bowl as fans cheered loudly in appreciation. The Galaxy nearly quieted the crowd in the opening minutes when striker Robbie Keane came close to scoring but was stopped by TFC keeper Stefan Frei.
Despite the spirits of the crowd an impending corner kick from Beckham had many sensing a trademark bad start for the Reds. As the Galaxy star tried to line up for his kick, he was engulfed in streamers delaying the midfielder’s corner, but it was cleared harmlessly. Beckham would have to deal with streamers on every corner kick at all corners of the field.
TFC forward Joao Plata used his explosive speed on the left side going at Galaxy defenders and forced two corner kicks for his team. On the second occasion, Torsten Frings stepped in for a corner and his chip into the box was headed wide by Galaxy’s Mike Magee. But the ball landed at Ryan Johnson’s feet and he volleyed it over Josh Saunders to give Toronto the 1-0 lead in just the 12th minute. The crowd roared in appreciation as more streamers rained down from above.
Johnson nearly scored moments later but his shot was parried away by Saunders. But the Reds were able to capitalize in the 18th minute when Frings from midfield floated a long ball to an unmarked Luis Silva who headed the ball out Saunder’s reach and just inside the right post. The rookie, born and raised in Los Angeles, was making his professional debut and dropped to knees in celebration after scoring on the team he adored growing up.
Later Beckham, nearly caught Frei out of position as he crossed curved in towards goal and the TFC keeper had to leap back to knock the ball off the line. But the Galaxy were able to get a goal back in the 29th minute. Sean Franklin sent a high cross that grazed Frei’s fingertips and landed to an unmarked Magee for an easy tap-in. Richard Eckersley made a poor attempt at the ball and it went over him and Magee had no trouble with the volley.
Beckham has to deal with more streamers while striking a corner kick
The half ended with a 2-1 score but it was clear that the Galaxy were starting to take control of the game and it seemed that the equalizer was not a matter of if, but when. The second half saw both teams create scoring chances but shots either went wide or high over goal as both teams lacked finish. Donovan nearly scored on a strike within the box but just went wide of the left upright.
In the 88th minute as Beckham lined up for another corner kick, he again had streamers thrown at him but then a foolish fan threw a beer can at the English star. That angered him and he looked determined as he curved the ball into the box. The ball was knocked around a few times before the ball came to Donovan who pounced on it and kicked it over Frei for the equalizer. Beckham looked vindicated as he pointed to the crowd in celebration.
TFC had numerous problems last season dealing with set pieces, especially late in matches and saw another winnable game slip from its grasp as the game ended in a 2-2 draw.
Galaxy's Landon Donovan celebrates his tying goal in the 88th minute with teammates Todd Dunivant and Beckham as TFC fans watch in disappointment
“It clearly woke us up,” said Donovan after falling behind 2-0. “It didn’t feel like a 2-0 game at that point. We didn’t do a whole lot wrong but we made two mistakes. One on a corner and not marking a guy on a floating cross. So it woke us up a little bit, our response was really good.
“We did a really good job of making sure we created chances. At the end of the day the goal here was one - win or tie the game and two - score goals. We did both that.”
TFC Head Coach and Technical Director Aron Winter thought his team played well against a talented Galaxy side and thought his team deserved a victory. With the draw and LA holding the edge in a tiebreaker with its two road goals, the task in the second leg for Toronto is obvious – win or go home.
“That’s football, it’s a pity. If you watch the whole game we start well, we tried to play football and in the end we were unlucky.”
“I think overall the players have done it well and they scored two goals. Next week we got another game and you know that you have to win to qualify for the next round.”
The second leg will be played in Los Angeles at Home Depot Center next Wednesday, March 14 with kickoff at 10 p.m. ET.
TFC celebrate its first goal by Ryan Johnson in the 12th minute as fans cheer in appreciation
Aman Dhanoa is a Toronto sports beat reporter covering games live and bringing Digital Journal insights from within the locker room.
This article was originally published on Oye! Times