TORONTO — Pro wrestling legend Ric Flair's most famous catchphrase certainly rings true on most days, but for Toronto FC it was especially prevalent in Wednesday night's 2-1 victory.
"To be the man, you gotta beat the man."
TFC hosted Orlando City at BMO Field in a match that pitted the Reds against a Lions team that is currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference in MLS. Yet for all of Orlando's confidence heading into the match — thanks to a stellar 6-1-0 record prior to Wednesday's affair — it was Toronto that looked like the team to beat.
Greg Vanney's men dominated the early proceedings by taking advantage of Orlando's narrow tactical setup, pushing the ball down the wings and daring the visitors to open up the field of play. It worked exceedingly well for the home side, especially down the left flank where homegrown phenom Raheem Edwards proved to be a handful for a third straight match.
Toronto's wide play, and Edwards' individual brilliance in the opening 45 minutes, picked the Lions apart and led to the opening goal by Sebastian Giovinco. The little Italian got the second goal as well, also from a move that utilized the width of the pitch.
It was a dazzling display that showed that perhaps TFC was still, in fact, the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
It was never going to be as easy as the opening stages made it seem, however, and Orlando fought back. A very late first half strike by Kaka pulled the Lions back within one goal, and the visiting side drastically changed things up after halftime to put pressure on a TFC team that had been cruising.
"As the game progressed, I think the let down at the very end of the first half meant that it became a real dog fight," Vanney said. "We gave away some of our cushion and it came to 2-1, and they came out pressing a little bit higher, a little bit faster."
The tactical shift worked, and Orlando had the two best chances of the second half. A bit of luck for both sides — bad for Orlando's Cyle Larin and good for TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono — kept the ball out of the Toronto net, and eventually the hosts had to switch from their preferred 3-5-2 formation to deal with the relentless pressure from Jason Kreis' men.
But deal with it Toronto did, and while it wasn't always pretty, the Reds did enough to keep the hungry Lions at bay for the rest of the game.
Good teams are able to find ways to win, especially against worthy opposition, and Toronto managed to shift from a dominant first half display to a chippy, battling final 45 minutes to close out Wednesday night's clash. No matter the method, the result was all that mattered to a TFC team that has won three consecutive games and only lost once this season.
"It doesn’t matter how you get a win, it matters that you do get the win and we’ve gotten nine points in three straight and it’s huge for us going forwards," Bono said. "We’re going on the road for a few games and we’ll try to keep the momentum going. Momentum is a huge thing in this league and we’re going to try to keep it going in our favor."
Wednesday's result doesn't definitively settle anything, it's just one regular season game out of 34 for both teams, but it served as a message to the new boys on top of the East — and indeed to the rest of the conference — that Toronto still sees itself as the team to beat.