After a first half where everything seemed to go wrong, D.C. United could be forgiven for packing it in and focusing on damage limitation against Toronto FC. Ayo Akinola had two goals, and Junior Moreno was sent off just before the halftime whistle. Instead, the Black-and-Red dug deep, turning a nightmare of an MLS is Back Tournament opener into a stunning 2-2 draw thanks to late, late goals by Federico Higuain and Frederic Brillant.
With both teams trying to feel their way through the game, Toronto took an early lead seemingly out of the blue. Ayo Akinola controlled the ball at the top of the box, but seemed contained. However, a quick turn took him away from Russell Canouse, Frederic Brillant, and Junior Moreno, and he unleashed a thunderbolt of a shot from 21 yards that just barely tucked inside Bill Hamid’s right-hand post, making it 1-0 in the 12th minute.
United were reeling, and spent the next few minutes chasing shadows. Finally, after 21 minutes, United carved out a half-chance, as Joseph Mora’s cross from the left was volleyed wide by Ola Kamara. However, the attacks were few and far between, with Felipe having to make a crucial intervention in the 28th minute as Pablo Piatti’s cutback from the endline looking like a major threat.
United finally stabilized around the 30th minute, though you could argue that it was more about TFC slowed their tempo down in the sapping Orlando humidity. However, just before halftime, a defensive debacle handed Akinola a second goal. A header forward from Piatti was easy work, but Brillant and Steven Birnbaum both felt like the other would take care of the situation. Alejandro Pozuelo knifed in to take possession, rolling a pass to the wide-open Akinola for a tap-in in the 44th minute.
Stung by conceding such a bad goal, the Black-and-Red picked their play up, with Kamara denied by a splendid Quentin Westberg save and a potential handball shout turned down after a lengthy VAR check.
But there was no escaping bad news in what had been a bad half, as Junior Moreno — having been booked earlier in the game, and probably lucky to still be in the game after subsequent fouls — crashed through the back of Marky Delgado in first half stoppage time. Bazakos had no hesitation giving Moreno his second yellow, and there could be no disputing the call from United.
Down a man and drained from chasing the ball throughout the first half, Olsen had made three subs by the 58th minute, including a United debut for homegrown midfielder Kevin Paredes. The changes may have helped, but so too did the game state, as Toronto were content to patiently string passes together 70 yards from United’s goal as D.C. stood off in an empty bucket 441.
TFC’s satisfaction with the scoreline came back to bite them, as 10-man United pulled a goal back in the 84th minute. Canouse, moved into the midfield, helped force a turnover, and Felipe immediately sent Federico Higuain — also making his DCU debut — in alone on Westberg. As the TFC goalkeeper approached, Higuain showed the class that made him a legend in Columbus, cleverly lobbing Westberg to give himself a first goal to go with a first appearance with the club.
The Reds should have woken up, but stunningly, United leveled the score in the 91st minute. A deep free kick from the left touchline seemed like a mild threat, but Felipe’s long back-post service picked out Birnbaum, who nodded the ball back across goal to Brillant, who made up for his earlier error by powering a header past Westberg to give United a miraculous equalizer.
United still had work to do to escape with a draw, as Hamid made a wonderful save in the sixth minute of stoppage time to rob Akinola of a hat trick and preserve the point on what was a completely strange first day for both teams at the MLS is Back tournament.
MLS is Back Tournament - Group C
Toronto FC 2 (Akinola 12, 44)
D.C. United 2 (Higuain 84, Brillant 91+)
TFC (4231); Quentin Westberg; Auro, Omar Gonzalez (Eriq Zavaleta 64), Chris Mavinga (Laurent Ciman 64), Justin Morrow (Richie Laryea 46); Michael Bradley (C), Marky Delgado; Pablo Piatti (Erickson Gallardo 73), Alejandro Pozuelo (Nick DeLeon 77), Tsubasa Endoh; Ayo Akinola
DCU (4231): Bill Hamid; Russell Canouse, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum (C), Joseph Mora (Chris Odoi-Atsem 69); Felipe Martins, Junior Moreno; Julian Gressel (Kevin Paredes 58), Edison Flores (Yamil Asad 57), Ulises Segura (Federico Higuain 80); Ola Kamara (Oniel Fisher 46)
TFC - None
DCU - Moreno 18, Moreno 51+ (sent off), Felipe 71, Canouse 82