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COLUMN: Toronto FC runs roughshod over upstart Rovers

Hundreds of local fans made trek to BMO Field for hotly anticipated match; 'That support does not go unnoticed,' says goalkeeper Rimi Olatunji

Of all the files that travel through a sports scribbler’s laptop, a story on a game between an established Major League Soccer franchise and a group of upstart amateurs based in Barrie is about as rare as a traffic-free journey on the Gardiner Expressway to get there.

For you, dear reader, we humbly present such a missive detailing Toronto FC’s 5-0 win over the Simcoe County Rovers in the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship on Wednesday night at BMO Field in Toronto.

The Reds scored four first-half goals to cement the win that was never in doubt. Having not played a competitive match since September, the Rovers could do little to stop waves of red jerseys worn by game-tested professionals who are rounding into mid-season form.

“MLS is a different beast,” said Rovers head coach Zico Mahrady, while downplaying the effect competitive rust had on his team’s performance. “We knew that it was going to be difficult.”

With the victory, TFC now advances to the quarter-finals of the Canadian Championship. Powered by a lifetime of memories and likely a sense they didn’t quite leave their best performance on the pitch, the Rovers open their defence of their Ontario League1 crown with a visit to Vaughan to play the Azzurri on Sunday.

The Rovers had their moments tonight. In fact, despite being widely outplayed from the opening touch, Rovers forced the first save of the game. A clumsy challenge by TFC’s Kosi Thompson led to a yellow card and the resulting Rovers free kick required Reds goalkeeper Luka Gavran to swat the ball away to prevent the visitors going up 1-0 against the run of play.

The Rovers' Alexander Zis, off a lovely volley, forced another nice save by Galvan in the 23rd minute, but the Rovers were already a goal down by then when Prince Owusu scored five minutes earlier.

Mahrady was under no illusions during his post-match press conference, but he acknowledged that had his club got a different bounce or two early on, the scoreline could have been much closer.

“Sometimes football comes down to luck,” he said of his team's handful of forays on goal throughout the match. “I (don’t know) that it would have changed the result, but it would have given us more belief.”

Cassius Mallula added to the TFC lead in the 30th minute, a goal that came after the Rovers had managed to keep the Reds pinned into their own end of the pitch for the longest of any stretch of the game.

Kevin Long made it 3-0 four minutes later off a corner kick. A pretty passing sequence that was finished off by Toronto captain Jonathan Osorio, playing in his 350th game for TFC, about five minutes before half made the score 4-0 and was likely the biggest single play over 90 minutes, illustrating the difference in class between the two sides.

Rovers goalkeeper Rimi Olatunji made a few saves on both sides of the half-time interval that prevented the score from getting further out of hand. He and the beleaguered Rovers back line were also helped by two TFC balls hitting the woodwork.

TFC head coach John Herdman, who led Canada to its first men’s World Cup berth in 36 years before assuming the Reds' top job, was complimentary of the underdogs, but said his team knew what it needed to do and couldn’t play nice.

“I think they struggled in the first half,” said Herdman, while later complimenting the Rovers' adjustments at the break. “We knew we had to put the game away in the first half and look forward to (Saturday’s game in) Orlando.”

TFC rookie Tyrese Spicer, the first-overall selection in last spring’s MLS draft, rounded out the scoring in the second half. A few minutes later, Rovers were denied their best chance when Garvan stopped Orlendis Benitez-Hernandez in close.

Whatever the final score, it was a memorable evening and despite the tilted pitch, Rovers provided glimpses of why they have become the talk of the Canadian football landscape at the League1 level.

In the lead-up to Wednesday's game, it was expected that about 1,000 Rovers fans would make the trip to BMO Field. That number was adjusted to 1,500 the day before the match and then was exceeded again by as much as 500 more by kickoff. The increased numbers caused TFC to release more tickets to Rovers supporters because the traditional visitors' north-end stand was not big enough.

“That support does not go unnoticed,” said a beaming Olatunji while sitting beside Mahrady.

TFC, amidst a stretch of three games in a week and nursing a handful of injuries, started a solid starting 11 considering the circumstances. Included in the Reds starting lineup was Owusu. In addition to his goal on Wednesday, the German striker scored the clinching goal in dramatic fashion in a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution that snapped a three-game losing streak.

In total, four starters from Saturday’s win over New England drew into Herdman’s starting 11 on Wednesday.

Handicapping the third rung of Canadian soccer is a mug’s game, but the Rovers have as good of chance as any team to win Ontario League1 again this season. If they do, they may find themselves back in the same position next year.

Herdman, for one, said he expected to some day see the Rovers again.

Much water needs to pass under the bridge — hopefully it moves faster than traffic on the Gardiner — before then.

But, next time, if it comes, Rovers will know what to expect and should make the final score a smidge closer.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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