For about 20 minutes, Toronto FC seemed to grasp the concept.
Players caressed the ball, passes were completed with aplomb, and the team’s off-the-ball movement was sublime.
It didn’t last, though, and the TFC of the four previous Major League Soccer seasons quickly returned, the one that struggles to retain possession and string consecutive passes together.
Still, the Reds managed to grind out a 2-0 win over the expansion Portland Timbers in their home opener on a cool Saturday afternoon at BMO Field. Dutch forward Javier Martina scored both goals against a Timbers side struggling to find its feet in MLS.
The victory will no doubt go a long way to soothing frustrated TFC fans after last week’s 4-2 road loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, a match that saw the Reds outplayed by their Canadian cousins in their season opener.
But Dutch coach Aron Winter’s tactical revolution and his long-term goal of wanting to see Toronto play an attacking, possession-style game is a far distance away from being realized.
The score will fool many into believing the team has turned the corner. In reality, it was more of a reflection of Portland’s lack of quality than Toronto’s superiority.
Winter didn’t see it that way, but did acknowledge the Reds still have some work to do.
"If you watched the total 90 minutes we deserved to win, but it has to be much better in the future," Winter told reporters after the game.
Among the issues that have to be addressed, according to Winter, is the team’s ability to keep possession and exploit open space. He also said the midfielders have to do a better job of finding the forwards.
Still, it was an improvement from the debacle in Vancouver, and if Toronto has any hope of making the playoffs, it needs to win games like this one.
Winter made two changes to his starting line-up, slotting Mikael Yourassowsky in defence for the injured Nana Attakora. With Attakora out, Adrian Cann started in the centre of the defence, marking his return to his natural position after being badly exposed at left-back last week in Vancouver.
Also, forward Alan Gordon made his TFC debut, playing in place of Nick Soolsma.
Newly acquired Serbian midfielder Alen Stevanovic, on loan from Italian club Torino, entered the match at the start of the second half for an ineffective Nathan Sturgis.
The cold weather (minus-4 C at kickoff) did little to slow down TFC. Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos effectively linked up with Gordon, providing a constant stream of quality service to the striker.
Martina also distinguished himself with his probing runs, causing a slew of problems for the Portland defence.
It all came together in the 14th minute when Santos fed a lovely ball into the box for De Rosario. The TFC captain flicked a pass back to Martina, who toe-poked a shot past Timbers goalkeeper Adin Brown to complete a sweeping passage of play.
But after dominating proceedings for the opening 20 minutes, the Reds lost the plot. Sturgis and his fellow midfielders committed far too many turnovers, while the defenders were continually caught out of position.
Kenny Cooper used his size and strength to harass the back four, although the Timbers couldn’t take advantage of Toronto’s poor play.
Santos was played in alone on goal by Gordon early in the second half, only to be stopped by Jack Gleeson, who replaced the injured Brown (hamstring) at halftime.
TFC put the game away in the 70th minute, as Martina chipped Gleeson from just outside the box with a gorgeous lob shot.
Referee Silviu Petrescu made several bad calls over the 90 minutes, his most pronounced coming late in the contest when he gave Yourassowsky a second yellow card for time wasting.
Toronto’s next match is April 2 at home against Chivas USA.