Interim coach Javier Pérez called it a fairy tale. But Jozy Altidore’s goal on his return to action after eight weeks out with Toronto FC didn’t have a happy ending on Saturday.
Still, there was much to celebrate when BMO Field echoed with the sounds of soccer and its fans.
Altidore’s 72-minute good moment for TFC, playing at home in front of fans for the first time since March 2020, was canceled minutes later by an Orlando goal from the penalty spot.
The 1-1 tie marked the first game at BMO Field for Toronto (2-8-3) since Sept. 1 and the first with fans in the stands since March 7, 2020.
Altidore, who last played on May 22 due to a fight with former coach Chris Armas, entered in the 64th minute to a standing ovation. And eight minutes later, Yeferson Soteldo fed fullback Justin Morrow, whose center found the big man in front of goal and Altidore, between two defenders, rose high to head the ball.
“The moment of Soteldo’s ball scores the goal,” Altidore said later.
Altidore, slapping his jersey crest, and his teammates headed to the southeast corner of the field in droves to celebrate.
For the Toronto players, it was home sweet home after a long time away.
“For the last 16 months, we’ve talked about trying to be professional, to get a job done,” Altidore said. “But people have to understand that it is not just the players who are on tour, it is our children, our families, getting them out of school, at school, who also feel uncomfortable. That weighs on you, as parents, as parents. So to finally be back in a normal environment, so to speak, you saw the boys’ relief, just to be able to play at home, to regain that normalcy. It was great.
“I think you saw him at that celebration. It’s such a relief to be back home. “
But Orlando (6-3-4) tied the game in the 77th minute with a Nani penalty with a video review that convinced referee Marcos de Oliveira to mark the point after goalkeeper Alex Bono pulled Benji Michel out of Orlando. Bono was exposed after Brazilian defender Auro misinterpreted a long, high ball, allowing the Orlando striker to enter alone.
Bono reached into Nani’s penalty but couldn’t stop it.
Toronto (2-8-3) has a win and a draw with Perez, who noted that the points came against the Eastern Conference leaders in New England and Orlando. And with Inter Miami’s game at the New York Red Bulls postponed due to bad weather, Toronto moved out of the league basement.
Attendance was limited to 7,000 people with a crowd of front-line healthcare workers, first responders and season ticket holders.
“Welcome back to BMO Field,” the PA announcer said before introducing TFC’s starting lineup. “It’s been a long 16 months.”
“Football’s Come Home,” read a sign on the south stand.
It was also the first time that all of TFC’s designated players _ Altidore, Soteldo and Alejandro Pozuelo _ were on the field at the same time this season.
Toronto was 11-15-5 in all competitions in the 10 1/2 months since its last outing from BMO Field, with eight of those victories last year. Before Saturday, the club had won just three of its last 17 games (3-12-2) in regular season and postseason away games.
The crowd on Saturday was supposed to be masked and scattered around the stadium. Still, the small groups of supporters on the South Stand made their voices heard.
“I think it was a very special moment for the whole team, for me, for the players, for everyone involved in the club to have the fans,” said Pérez, a native of Spain. “That is the strength they give us. I think all the players felt it tonight.
“We are happy with the performance. Obviously, we wanted all three points, but the performance is good. We will build the team from here. We will be stronger and stronger. “
Attendance will rise to 15,000 for next Wednesday’s home game against the New York Red Bulls.
The next home game after that is August 1 against Nashville SC. TFC and Major League Soccer have yet to announce plans for that game and beyond.
The spectators did not see a classic although Soteldo served ooh and aahs for his remarkable ball control. At one point in the first half, the five-foot-three Venezuelan tricked himself, losing his balance as he tried to dance around a defender.
Like former Toronto star Sebastian Giovinco, Soteldo is short but has a lot of talent and deception. And he is routinely beaten by bigger, slower defenders. The pocket-sized Venezuelan spent quite some time on the ground, arms raised in disbelief at the treatment he was receiving.
Soteldo had his way with Orlando fullback Kyle Smith for most of the night.
The chances were few and far between in the first half. Dom Dwyer had Toronto’s best chance in the 35th minute after Soteldo pinched the ball off an Orlando player and ran to the opposite end. He fed Dwyer but the forward’s touch was strong and he lost the ball.
A minute late Toronto unsuccessfully appealed for a penalty when Soteldo fell into the penalty area in a collision with Andrés Perea after a cute interaction with Pozuelo.
Orlando’s best two chances at the half led to an offside flag.
The visitors were close in the 58th minute when Michel found substitute Chris Mueller in the penalty area. But Morrow rallied to put one foot on the ball, sending it away from Mueller and off the post.
Auro fell in the 60th minute, complaining about an elbow from Orlando, but nothing came out.
Toronto was coming off a 3-2 win on July 7 at New England that snapped a six-game losing streak (and seven winless). TFC entered the game with the worst defense in the league, conceding 2.42 goals per game.
Orlando had lost two in a row, defeated 3-1 at Chicago in their last outing on July 7. The Lions had won three in a row before that, part of a 6-1-3 start to the season.
Toronto was missing five international players in the Gold Cup: Ayo Akinola, Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio (Canada), Eriq Zavaleta (El Salvador) and Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica). Orlando was left without Daryl Dike (USA).
Goalkeeper Pedro Gallese (Peru) and defensive midfielder Sebas Méndez (Ecuador), back from the Copa América, returned to Orlando’s starting lineup. But Mendez lasted only 13 minutes, helping out after a second collision with a teammate.