The Union’s five-game unbeaten streak ended Saturday night with a 2-1 loss to Toronto FC at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., causing the Union to fall to fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Though it was only the Union’s third loss of the regular season, it felt more significant than that. The Union have played the three teams now above them in the standings — Orlando, Toronto and Columbus — once each, and failed to beat any of them.
“I get [that] the fans will be frustrated,” Curtin said as he bristled at multiple postgame questions on the subject. “What matters now is how we respond."
Early in the game, there was cause for optimism. Sergio Santos opened the scoring in the fifth minute with his first goal since Aug. 30, a deft chip shot from a tight angle. Alejandro Bedoya started the play by intercepting a Toronto clearance and feeding Santos with a first-touch pass. The Brazilian split two defenders on the way into the 18-yard box, then floated the ball over Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
Jamiro Monteiro came close to doubling the lead at the half-hour mark with a swerving blast from 25 yards, after a great buildup by Brenden Aaronson and Santos. But Toronto goalkeeper Westberg made a full-stretch leap to tip the ball off the crossbar, then he dived low to grab the rebound.
The Union (8-3-4, 28 points) didn’t have much of the ball in the rest of the half. Toronto (9-2-4, 31 points) recorded 64.6% of the possession, and the Union were fortunate just one of the Reds' seven shots was on target.
But there’s conceding possession and there’s living dangerously, and the Union did the latter for most of the second half.
One of the only moments of respite came in the 51st minute, when the Union witnessed a sight that American soccer fans have seen far too often over the years: Jozy Altidore pulling up and grabbing a hamstring. Altidore tried for a moment to stay in, but yielded to the pain and Nick DeLeon replaced him.
Seven minutes later, Ayo Akinola — a long-term prospect to succeed Altidore on the U.S. national team if he chooses to — tied the game with a powerful header from close range. It was a rare poor moment for Mark McKenzie, whom Akinola ran behind to the back post to meet a cross from Tony Gallacher.
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Anthony Fontana was the Union’s first substitute, replacing Aaronson in the 65th minute. Ilsinho was the second, replacing Santos in the 71st. Neither move helped the Union get momentum back.
Toronto’s dominance finally bore fruit in the 76th minute, when a free kick led to a corner kick. Pablo Piatti served it up, Chris Mavinga headed it across the 6-yard box, and Alejandro Pozuelo was shockingly unmarked. His finish was easy.
In search of a tying goal, Curtin sent in forward Andrew Wooten and took out left back Matt Real in the 86th minute. Now it was Toronto’s turn to sit back and absorb, and they snuffed out everything the Union produced. Bedoya’s header at Westberg in the first minute of stoppage time was the closest the Union came to scoring again.
“I’m frustrated, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get more out of this game,” Bedoya said. “They get two crosses [to] two free, open headers. It’s just not good enough from us on the defensive side, and we weren’t sharp enough on the attacking side."
Bedoya and the rest of the team will have an opportunity to take out their frustration on FC Cincinnati Wednesday at Subaru Park (7:30 p.m., PHL17). It’s the first of five home games left this year, out of the eight total remaining. That’s enough time to get back up the standings, but also enough of a sprint for the pressure to be real now.