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Columbus rallies to tie Toronto 1-1 with late goal in TFC home opener

Toronto FC's search for its first win of the Major League Soccer season continues after a 1-1 draw in its home opener Saturday against the Columbus Crew.
Toronto FC forward Deandre Kerr (29) celebrates after scoring against the Columbus Crew during first half MLS soccer action, in Toronto, on Saturday, March 11, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Toronto FC's search for its first win of the Major League Soccer season continues after a 1-1 draw in its home opener Saturday against the Columbus Crew.

Substitute Jimmy Medranda's 75th-minute goal secured a point for Columbus (1-1-1), on a play that needed video review to become official. Deandre Kerr had given Toronto the lead in the 25th minute before an announced crowd of 25,796. 

TFC (0-1-2) has two points to show for its first three games after opening with a 3-2 loss at D.C. United and 1-1 draw at Atlanta.

"This is not good for me, for my mentality," Italian star Federico Bernardeschi, speaking in English, said of Toronto's early-season performance.

"I'm very disappointed today," he added. "I feel bad because it's the first match in our stadium with our fans. It's cold and the people come in the stadium for us. The people need a win, the three points, to be enthusiastic about the game."

Toronto coach Bob Bradley was more analytical but not much happier.

"Each game there's been (good) bits and pieces of things but no, we're not at the level that I think we can be," he said.

The tying goal came when Aidan Morris put Medranda in behind the Toronto defence and the Colombian, just two minutes into his Columbus debut, chipped Sean Johnson for the goal only to see the offside flag go up. But referee Ismir Pekmic awarded the goal after reviewing the play on the pitchside monitor.

Columbus had a chance to win it in stoppage time but Cucho Herndandez hit the goalpost and Alexandru Matan sent the rebound just wide.

It was a depleted TFC attack with Italian star Lorenzo Insigne, the league's highest-paid player, missing a second straight game with a lower-body injury. Starting striker Adama Diomande and Ayo Akinola, who replaced him mid-game last weekend, were also unavailable due to tight hamstrings.

Bradley said there's a "good chance" Akinola will be ready for next Saturday's home game against Inter Miami with Diomande perhaps needing another week or two to recover.

Insigne, who was hurt in the season opener, continues to feel discomfort in his groin at times in training and may undergo another scan.

"He's still feeling something with certain actions and we want to be very careful with that," Bradley added.

Toronto fullback Raoul Petretta limped off in the 73rd minute, perhaps adding to the medical list. 

On a positive note, veteran midfielder Victor Vazquez, recovered from a non-COVID illness, came on in the 72nd minute for his season debut. It marked his 66th appearance for Toronto in all competitions and came 1,617 days after his last appearance for Toronto (against Vancouver in October 2018).

The Spaniard left TFC in January 2019 for a team in Qatar, rejoining the team in December after spending the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Bradley has bolstered his starting 11 with some savvy off-season acquisitions, the rest of the squad is talented but green. 

Taking the 36-year-old Vazquez out of the equation, the Toronto bench averaged 21 years of age with three teenagers in 18-year-old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Hugo Mbongue and 19-year-old Kobe Franklin.

Kerr slotted into the starting 11, earning his first minutes of the season. 

And it was the 20-year-old Kerr who opened the scoring, taking a pass from Jonathan Osorio and turning Australian international defender Milos Degenek like a corkscrew before beating goalkeeper Eloy Room with a well-placed low shot for his fourth career goal.

Johnson was the victim of friendly fire early in the second half when, after a Columbus shot was fired high into the north end, he was accidentally hit in the head with the ball thrown back by a fan. Johnson stayed in the game, however.

There was no evidence that the fan was doing anything else but trying to return the ball. But as Bradley noted, the best plan is to leave if for a ballboy to collect.

Soon after, the PA announcer had to warn fans after several snowballs were launched onto the pitch.

Bernardeschi was held off the scoresheet for the first time this season but the Italian still showed his ball-handling wizardry on several occasions, befuddling Columbus defenders. Bernardeschi and fullback Richie Laryea continued to combine effectively as well.

Room made a fine save to deny Osorio in first-half stoppage time after the veteran Canadian was put through by Bernardeschi.

The Italian came close to setting up a late winning goal twice, but one low cross failed to find a teammate and Laryea sent the second one off target.

Columbus outshot Toronto 17-7 (4-3 in shots on target).

Johnson, Petretta, Mbongue, Franklin, Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted and Brandon Servania all made their home debuts for TFC.

Toronto's record in home openers now stands at 8-6-3.

It was minus-two Celsius at kickoff, said to feel like minus-seven. But the conditions fell squarely in the "better than yesterday" category.

After close to 10 centimetres of snow fell in Toronto on Friday, the BMO Field grounds crew was at the stadium before 6 a.m. Saturday.

"Hard to sleep watching the snow," said Robert Heggie, director of grounds at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

The tarp protecting the grass came off after the snow was removed at the stadium, which has underground heating. The grass, which looked surprisingly good considering the time of year, was then trimmed using push-mowers.

Several players had issues with their footing, however.

"I think the grounds crew did an amazing job. … The field was a bit slick but considering the weather that we've had, I think we can't complain," said Kerr.

Columbus coach Wilfried Nancy, in his first year at the Crew helm after leaving CF Montreal in December, went with the same starting 11 as last week. 

Canadian wingback Mo Farsi, a former Cavalry FC player who was named the Canadian Premier League's Best Canadian U-21 Player in 2020, made his third straight start for the Crew.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press