It didn't seem possible the MLS is Back Tournament could start any worse for Toronto FC after its first match was postponed twice due to COVID-19 concerns.
But a late collapse, with 10-man D.C. United scoring the tying goal in stoppage time, proved different as Toronto had to settle for an unsatisfying 2-2 tie when the teams finally took the field Monday morning at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex.
“We're angry with ourselves, we're frustrated,” sad Toronto captain Michael Bradley. “For a team that wants to be as good as we do and for a team that holds ourselves to the standards that we do, there's no way that you should let a team like that back in the game today.”
“We were in position to win the game, we should have won the game and we collapsed,” echoed Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
Ayo Akinola, in a rare start, scored twice in the first half to give Toronto a 2-0 lead.
D.C. United played the second half down a man after midfielder Junior Moreno received a second yellow for going through the back of Marky Delgado in first-half stoppage time.
Toronto used its man advantage in the second half, stroking the ball around the field, and seemed cruising to a commanding win until the bottom fell out.
It started in the 84th minute when D.C. United scored against the run of play.
Substitute Federico Higuain, in his D.C. United debut after knee surgery and a decorated career in Columbus, cooly chipped the ball over Quentin Westberg after the heart of a reshuffled Toronto defence was sliced open by a pass from Brazil's Felipe.
Defender Frederic Brillant completed the comeback in the 91st minute, heading in the tying goal from a Felipe free kick.
Akinola came close to restoring the Toronto lead in the 96th minute but Bill Hamid got a hand to his header.
“Overall, just in general, a gutsy performance from what I think is a mentally tough group,” said D.C. coach Ben Olsen. “It has not been an easy 10, 11 days since we got here. A lot of moving parts, a lot of cancellations and games being moved. So to get something out of that game, I think, says a lot about our group.
“Yes we can get better. But this is a marathon and the trick at these tournaments is to keep pushing and getting better throughout the tournament.”
Vanney shuffled three-quarters of his backline in the second half, changes he said were due to physical issues he did not want to exacerbate in the Florida heat and humidity.
Fullback Justin Morrow came off at halftime after experiencing some Achilles tendinitis. Centre backs Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga were replaced in the 64th minute after both started cramping.
Replacement centre backs Eriq Zavalata and Laurent Ciman were victimized on both goals.
On the first, D.C. could have driven a fleet of Mack trucks down the centre of the pitch without hitting anything after a Ciman giveaway at midfield triggered the counter-attack.
Substitute Richie Laryea then gave away an unnecessary free kick just inside the Toronto half that led to the tying goal. Steven Birnbaum rose high to beat Zavaleta, who protested he had been fouled, and sent the ball to Brillant, who got between Bradley and Ciman to head the ball home.
Toronto outshot D.C. United 18-8 (7-5 in shots on target) and had 66.4 per cent possession - helped by its second-half numerical advantage.
There was some bad blood after the final whistle of a game that saw some ugly tackles. Bradley said some of it seemed to come from D.C. players blaming them for the match postponements.
The two teams were originally scheduled to meet Friday night but that was pushed back to Sunday due to Toronto's late arrival (July 6), caused by the need for additional COVID-19 testing after a member of the travelling part reported symptoms.
Sunday's game was called off minutes before the 9 a.m. ET kickoff in the wake of a positive test for a D.C. United player and an inconclusive test for a Toronto player.
All other players tested negative in a round of new testing. The two players in question, neither of which were identified by their clubs, were isolated pending receipt of a second negative test.
The tournament, which marks the league's first action since it shut down March 12 due to the global pandemic, has already lost FC Dallas and Nashville SC due to a rash of positive COVID-19 tests.
The game finally kicked off at 9:08 a.m. in 28 C heat. Both teams arrived wearing masks and Black Lives Matter T-shirts, taking a knee before kickoff.
There was no evidence of rust as Toronto pressed D.C. and attacked on multiple fronts despite the absence of star striker Jozy Altidore.
Akinola scored in the 12th minute, beating one defender and then splitting two more before hammering in a right-footed shot from the edge of the box. The goal came after Hamid's goal kick went straight to Bradley in the D.C. end, with an Alejandro Pozuelo pass eventually finding Akinola.
The 20-year-old scored again in the 44th minute after Pozuelo beat Brillant to the ball following an 11-pass Toronto sequence. Pozuelo floated the ball to the far post where an unmarked Akinola tapped it in.
Akinola came into the match with one goal in 12 career MLS appearances (including two starts) spread over three seasons. It was his first MLS game action since June 29, 2019 - and first start since May 8, 2019.
Westberg made a remarkable one-handed save to stop Ola Kamara's header from point-blank range in first-half stoppage time.
On the plus side, Argentine newcomer Pablo Piatti looked sharp in his Toronto debut, showing a good rapport with Pozuelo and Brazil's Auro on the right flank. Akinola also made the most of his opportunity.
And Bradley, in his first outing since injuring his ankle in the Nov. 10 MLS Cup final, was a force in midfield.
“I thought he was fantastic,” said Vanney.
Toronto has not lost a regular-season game since Aug. 3, 2019, when it was beaten 2-0 by the New York Red Bulls. Vanney's team has gone 5-0-8 since.
Toronto's next Group C game is Thursday against the Montreal Impact, who lost their opener 1-0 to the New England Revolution last Thursday.
The three group games count in the regular-season standings with Toronto now at 1-0-2 and D.C. United at 1-1-1.
Altidore did not make the matchday 23. He was late joining the team after spending the lockdown at his Florida home and had to train on his own while fulfilling quarantine.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio didn't dress due to a quad strain.
Vanney said Altidore could get some minutes against Montreal with the third game targeted for Osorio.
Toronto knocked D.C. United out of the playoffs the last time they met, scoring four goals in extra time in a 5-1 first-round win in October.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.