Toronto FC's painful season produced another body blow Saturday. And perhaps more worrying, there was a frustrated outburst from Italian star Federico Bernardeschi in the aftermath of the 1-0 loss to Austin FC.
Bob Bradley's depleted team, missing 10 players through injury or suspension, looked to have hung on for a second straight scoreless draw only to concede a 91st-minute goal in the first-ever meeting between the MLS clubs.
Austin substitute Adam Lundkvist's cross was not cleared with Nick Lima's ensuing backward header hitting the crossbar, with goalkeeper Sean Johnson hitting the deck after trying to make the save. The ball came back to Gyasi Zardes who headed it home for his 99th career MLS goal with the ball just clearing six-foot-four defender Matt Hedges' head.
"A very tough loss," said Bradley, who said his players were "devastated."
"We got through a tough first half. I thought we made some improvements in the second half," he added. "It's a very tough goal to give up."
The Zardes goal had been a long time coming. Austin outshot the visitors 16-3 (2-0 in shots on target).
Toronto (2-5-7) has won just one of its last 11 games (1-5-5) in all competitions. Sitting 15th and last in the Eastern Conference, it is winless in its last five outings (0-4-1) during which it has been outscored 7-1 (with the goal coming in Canadian Championship play).
TFC has not scored in league play since C.J. Sapong's strike in a 1-0 win over New York City FC on April 29 — a drought of 404 minutes.
Bernardeschi, speaking to reporters in a virtual availability after the game, praised his teammates saying they had left it all out on the field.
But the former Juventus player, who wears his heart on his sleeve, then seemed to take square aim at Bradley's tactics.
"We don't play," the Italian star, the fourth-highest-paid player in the league at US$6.295 million this season, said in English. "We play long pass. We don't have an idea to play."
"I think this city, the fans, everybody, don't deserve this," he added. "And I think maybe we need to change something. We need a little bit more tactics. We need an idea how we play, because this is the real problem for me. It's impossible to play like this when we play without idea."
Asked whether the problem was in executing the game plan or the game plan itself, Bernardeschi replied: "We don't have a construction in the game. When the player has the ball, we don't know how to pass the ball. This is the real problem. Because we don't train that.
"We lose every game. We tie, we lose, we tie, we lose. Sometimes we win. But I can't believe this, sincerely. This is no good for the young players. They need to get better and grow up with an idea of football … We need the idea of football."
Bernardeschi was substituted in the 67th minute with Bradley saying later he had been dealing with a stomach bug late in the week.
"It's humid down here and I thought he gave us 67 big minutes," said the three-time MLS coach of the year, who spoke to reporters before Bernardeschi.
It was one-way traffic in the first half with Austin having more than 60 per cent of possession and Toronto not recording a shot on goal. The home side hit the woodwork twice in the opening 45 minutes but none of its eight shots were on target.
A change in formation and personnel helped Toronto become more competitive in the second half.
TFC had yet to win on the road this season (0-4-3) and is 2-15-7 away from home in league play since the beginning of last year. Its last road win was Aug. 27 in Charlotte.
Toronto has won just one of its 23 career regular-season games in Texas (1-13-9) with the lone victory in September 2010 (2-1 at Houston).
Austin (4-5-4) snapped an eight-game winless league run (0-4-4) with a 2-1 upset at the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday. It was the third-year team's first victory since a 2-1 decision at Real Salt Lake on March 11.
The Texas side came into weekend play in 10th place in the West, one point out of the playoffs and with a better record on the road (2-3-1) than at home (1-2-3) this season. Austin had not won in league play at home since a 1-0 decision over CF Montreal on March 4.
Hedges and midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye returned to the Toronto starting lineup after injury absences. But Italian star Lorenzo Insigne didn't make the trip due to a lower-body injury, the club revealed just before kickoff.
Bradley said Insigne was struggling with a foot injury sustained in the mid-week 0-0 draw with the visiting Red Bulls.
The TFC injury list also included defenders Sigurd Rosted and Shane O'Neill, midfielders Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Alonso Coello and Victor Vazquez and forwards Adama Diomande and Deandre Kerr. Midfielder/forward Jahkeele Marshall Rutty was suspended.
With Bradley, Osorio and Insigne not dressed, Richie Laryea captained the team. Normally a fullback, Laryea was an emergency centre back Wednesday but started in the front three Saturday with Sapong and Bernardeschi.
Wingback Themi Antonoglou made his fifth career start for TFC, which played with a back three.
To make up the numbers, Toronto signed 18-year-old midfielder Markus Cimermancic, 22-year-old defender Antony Curic and 22-year-old midfielder Jordan Faria to short-term loan agreements from TFC II, the club’s MLS Next Pro side.
Faria made his MLS debut in the second half, replaced Bernardeschi.
Toronto's young bench featured two teenagers. In contrast, the Austin substitutes included Argentine designated player Emiliano Rigoni and veterans Zardes and Diego Fagundez, all of whom came on in the second half.
Austin was without injured attacking midfield star Sebastian Driussi, runner-up for league MVP last season.
It was 25 Celsius at kickoff at Q2 Stadium.
Bob Bradley sent on Kosi Thompson and Hugo Mbongue to open the second half, with Mbongue playing up front and Laryea dropping back to midfield.
Toronto's Kobe Franklin was booked in the 53rd minute for sliding boots-first into the onrushing Stuber as he challenged for the ball. Johnson had to parry a hard shot from distance from Dani Pereira in the 60th minute.
Kaye wrestled Sofiane Djeffal to the ground in the 71st minute, earning a booking for the crude challenge. Rigoni came close on the ensuing free kick.
Toronto hosts D.C. United next Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2023.