TORONTO — With his team trailing 1-0, Toronto FC coach Javier Perez’s advice at halftime was simple. Stay calm and move the ball quicker.
The advice worked wonders Wednesday as Toronto scored three times in 17 minutes to defeat FC Cincinnati 3-2 and — in a psychological boost if nothing else — move out of the MLS basement for the first time in a while.
Canadian winger Jacob Shaffelburg helped do the heavy lifting, scoring one goal and setting up the other two. Ifunanyachi Achara and Mark Delgado also scored for Toronto, with Yeferson Soteldo picking up two assists.
“When we were down 1-0, I asked them to stay calm, to stay in the game mentally because we were the better side and the goals were going to come,” said Perez.
“By staying calm and just moving the ball fast, we got rewarded on the second half,” he added.
Shaffelburg now has two goals and four assists in his last four games — three in MLS and one in the Canadian Championship. The 21-year-old from Port Williams, N.S., is a pacey winger who likes to take on defenders. And his delivery on crosses is first-rate.
At US$116,500, he ranks 18th on the Toronto payroll and is showing it is money well spent.
Shaffelburg’s attributes his recent success to increased confidence.
“I haven’t felt like this way in a while … I always knew I had it in the back of my head but it’s just all about my confidence,” he said. “At the start of the year it was up and down. Mid-season I didn’t have the best confidence.”
“Now I feel I can do this almost game-in game-out with how I’m feeling right now,” he added.
He has also been building a relationship with Soteldo.
“He’s an amazing player,” Shaffelburg said of the elusive Venezuelan. “I think I’m just starting to earn his respect a lot more in the last few games. So now we’re starting to pass and connect way more.”
Wednesday’s game, played in front of a sparse crowd of 5,110 at BMO Field, featured the two bottom teams in the Eastern Conference, with Cincinnati arriving with a one-point advantage over Toronto.
Toronto (5-15-7) extended its unbeaten run to four games (3-0-1) in all competitions, winning for the first time in 18 MLS matches (1-14-3) this season after conceding the first goal.
A third-year team that finished last in the standings in its first two years, Cincinnati has won just two of its last 18 league outings (2-9-7). Both of those wins came over TFC (2-0 on June 26 in Orlando and 2-0 Sept. 11 in Cincinnati).
Cincinnati (4-14-8) has now lost four straight and been outscored 13-5 since its last win over Toronto.
Cincinnati went ahead against the run of play in the 38th minute when captain Luciano Acosta found Ronald Matarrita, who had shed Toronto’s Achara, racing into the penalty box. The Costa Rican fullback beat Alex Bono with a powerful left-footed shot.
Toronto answered in the 48th minute on a counterattack when Soteldo put Shaffelburg in behind the defence and the young Canadian winger hammered a right-footed shot through Przemysław Tyton’s legs. It was his third goal of the season.
Defender Omar Gonzalez started the play, keeping the ball from going out of play by his own goal.
Shaffelburg played provider in the 55th minute, sending in a cross for Delgado to knock in at the far post for his second of the season. It was a well-worked goal.
It was more of the same in the 65th on another rapid-fire counter attack, this time with Shaffelburg’s cross finding an unmarked Achara in front of goal for his second of the season.
“Playing with Jacob is easy because most of his game is pace. When he starts running as fast as he can, you want to be in the (penalty) box when the ball comes in,” said Achara, who played with Shaffelburg at the Berkshire School in Massachusetts before college. “And I try to be in the right spot for him to cross it and tonight was another good delivery from him and I was there to finish.”
Acosta pulled one back for Cincinnati in the 72nd minute, beating Bono from the edge of the penalty box after Toronto failed to clear the ball. It was the sixth of the season for the diminutive Argentine, who was playing in his 150th career MLS regular-season game.
While the goal survived video review, Perez insisted the goal was offside.
Toronto outshot Cincinnati 16-9 (6-4 in shots on target).
Cincinnati is under new management with former TFC defender Tyrone Marshall serving as interim coach after Jaap Stam was fired Monday. Marshall, who played 362 MLS regular-season and playoff games for five teams from 1998 to 2012, had been in charge of Cincinnati’s under-19 and under-23 teams.
Toronto’s strike force was depleted on the night with Ayo Akinola, Jozy Altidore, Dom Dwyer and Jordan Perruzza were all out injured while Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo missed his sixth straight game with a lower body injury.
Midfielders Ralph Priso and Tsubasa Endoh and centre backs Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta were also out injured.
Toronto was coming off a weekend 0-0 draw in Colorado, having previously blanked York United FC 4-0 in Canadian Championship play and edged Nashville SC 2-1, both at home. The Sept. 18 win over Nashville snapped a six-game league losing streak and a nine-game winless run (0-7-2) that dated back to Aug. 1.
Wednesday’s game was Toronto’s sixth in all competitions since Sept. 11. TFC hosts Chicago on Sunday before the international break, with its next game Oct. 16 against visiting Atlanta.
Perez made four changes to the team that tied Colorado with Michael Bradley (back from suspension), Gonzalez, Shaffelburg and Achara coming in.
Kemar Lawrence partnered Gonzalez at centre back. Bono made his 100th MLS regular-season start.
Cincinnati was without suspended Ghana forward Isaac Atanga while Maikel van der Werff and Joseph-Claude Gyau were injured.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press