With a starting XI that included six players at or under age 23 (three of whom were making their MLS starts), it was a young Toronto FC side that delivered one of the team's biggest wins of the season on Saturday at BMO Field. TFC's 2-0 result against division rivals D.C. United was a crucial victory that ended a five-game winless skid for the Reds and gave them much-needed momentum going into a three-game road trip.
"We said all week, we've got 10 games left and today we wanted to win to set us up and get us ready for the final push to the playoffs," said team captain Jim Brennan. "It was very hot out on the pitch and it got a bit scrappy at times, but the guys dug deep, had a couple of chances, finished them and we walked away with three points."
Brennan was one of the few veterans on the pitch for Toronto, as TFC interim head coach Chris Cummins went with the younger lineup due to some regular starters scratched or on the bench due to injury or suspension. Cummins said earlier in the week that he was hoping that the infusion of young blood would spark the Reds, and judging by Saturday's result, the tactic worked.
"I said I was going to mix it up," Cummins said. "I saw enough in the young players to put them in and that's been my background [as a youth coach at Watford], seeing that talent, that enthusiasm, those legs and being patient with them. ... I thought they were outstanding."
Emmanuel Gomez, Amadou Sanyang and O'Brian White had a combined 33 minutes of MLS experience between them headed into the United game, but the rookie trio nevertheless started at center back, center midfield and striker, respectively. Though Sanyang wasn't able to play for TFC until he turned 18 on August 1 and White hadn't recovered from an ACL injury until late July, Cummins said that the main reason the youngsters hadn't seen much action was due to a lack of exposure to an actual game environment.
All three saw playing time against River Plate and Real Madrid in two recent friendlies, and thus Cummins finally saw enough to be comfortable throwing the rookies into the deep end of the battle for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"In those two friendlies the young kids showed they can play," Cummins said. "They're going to get their opportunities now and as long as they keep going well they'll stay on the team."
Gomez and Sanyang, the two young Gambian stars, played a big part in allowing Toronto to claim its fourth clean sheet of the season. Gomez, veteran Adrian Serioux and 20-year-old Nana Attakora (returning from a hamstring injury) held steady on the back line with Brennan providing both support on the left side and moving forward to spark some plays. When holding midfielder Carl Robinson left the game at halftime, Sanyang became a greater presence behind the ball as well.
It was White, though, who provided the biggest impact in the match. With TFC holding a 1-0 lead after 65 minutes, White gave his team some breathing room with his first career goal. The forward took a short pass from Attakora, made a slight move on his defender to give himself some room and then fired a shot into the right corner.
White's goal was his first on any level since last autumn as a member of the University of Connecticut. The young striker tore his left ACL in a match against Marquette last October and went through a long rehabilitation process before finally taking the field during the River Plate friendly on July 22.
Pegged as a possible first overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, White's injury allowed him to fall to his hometown Reds at the fourth pick of the first round. Playing at home meant that White had more than 30 members of his extended family in attendance at BMO Field on Saturday to see his first goal.
White was mobbed by teammates after his strike, and he said he was just as happy to add to his club's lead as he was to finally get his first professional goal.
"One goal we know they could score that at any time, so to score the second goal, it gave us a little bit of leverage," White said. "They [the other TFC players] saw what I went through with my therapy. I'm thankful for their support, it means a lot.
"I got my first goal, it really felt good. I have to give thanks to the training staff who put in a lot of work with me. I'm very grateful for it."
Toronto's other two first-round picks from the 2009 draft (No. 2 overall Sam Cronin and No. 13 overall Stefan Frei) also acquitted themselves well on Saturday, with Cronin picking up an assist on the opening goal from Dwayne De Rosario, and Frei making a fairly easy four saves for his fourth shutout of the season.
Cronin and Frei have become such fixtures in the TFC lineup this season that it's hard to think of them still as rookies, but they were also part of the under-23 sextet that carried the Reds to victory. Cummins also gave credit to his veterans for providing invaluable instruction at various points throughout the match.
"Of course it's a risk putting in six under-23s, but they've got legs, they've got energy and to play in MLS you need that energy," Cummins said. "You've that experience in the right places as well, Adrian talking to Nana and Gomez, Robbo talking to Amadou and Sammy Cronin playing out of position again, doing a good job."
The win was just TFC's fourth all-time victory in the months of July and August (4-11-8), a traditional summer swoon that has been in part caused by a lack of depth to combat injuries and the inevitable fatigue that comes from playing in warmer weather. With the young players providing both fresh legs and quality minutes, however, it gives the Reds confidence that this will be the season the team breaks through to the postseason.
Cummins couldn't help but aim his praise at the bigger picture when talking about how his young stars played against United on Saturday.
"There's a good group of young players and the young players are the future of the club," Cummins said. "If they go on and perform like that, then this club is really going to kick on."
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com.