Nick DeLeon

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Three things we learned from Atlanta United-Toronto FC (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Level at one but holding the hosts at bay, Toronto FC looked content to drag the life out of the Eastern Conference Final. One of its attackers had other ideas, though, as Nick DeLeon dribbled into and then out of traffic to smash a shot past Brad Guzan from outside the box and earn the Reds their third MLS Cup Final berth in four years (all against Seattle Sounders).

The Five Stripes came out of the gates hot in both halves. Julian Gressel rolled a ball over the line in the fourth minute of the first half and Atlanta won a penalty with embellishment only to see Quentin Westberg deny Josef Martinez from the spot. Both Westberg and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan were very decent in the first half, Nicolas Benezet’s equalizer a curling thing of beauty. A league with almost unrivaled home field advantage saw two celebrated home sides beaten by cagey former champions. MLS is a riot.

One more note: Here’s a nod to USMNT hero Michael Parkhurst, whose career ends one match short of another final.

“I have to say that today was resiliency,” said manager Greg Vanney. “It wasn’t beautiful soccer. These guys refused to give up, kept looking for their moment and got it. I don’t think there were too many statistical categories we won.”

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Three things we learned

1. Bradley, TFC caught sleeping early: Toronto FC’s hopes of taking the Mercedes Benz Stadium crowd out of this one took a seismic shake when Michael Bradley somehow didn’t realize Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was right behind him to blaze onto a terrific through ball from in-form Ezequiel Barco. Martinez held onto the ball as long as possible before sending a pass to Gressel for as easy a finish as you’ll see at this level. 1-0 in the fourth minute. Bradley then conceded a penalty to an embellishing but fouled Martinez, but French-American goalkeeper Quentin Westberg bailed him out with a fine save on Josef Martinez to keep the deficit at one. Buy him dinner, MB90.

2. TFC makes only attacking moments count: Nicolas Benezet quickly restored the deadlock with a terrific finish from the corner of the box. The ex-Guingamp midfielder ran onto a marvelous diagonal pass from center back Laurent Ciman. Benezet cut in freom the left and spun a curling effort toward the back post that ex-Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not rescue before it rippled the netting for 1-1 in the 14th minute. You could argue that there wasn’t another threat from the Canadian side until DeLeon’s winner, which was a smashing shot to cap a smash and grab.

3. Westberg, Mavinga keep Reds in the match: Yes, of course, the penalty kick save was an outstanding moment for the former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeeper, but he would be needed many times over the course of the match including two moments in the first few moments of the second half. Decisive off his line and composed on it, the 33-year-old continues to validate Greg Vanney’s decision to put him in the lineup over MLS Cup winner Nick Bono. As for Chris Mavinga, the physical Congolese defender was a force. A few days after a Man of the Match performance in New York, Mavinga rebounded from an in-game injury to make two decisive interventions in the final five minutes.

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Man of the match: Westberg.

Goalscorers: Gonzalo Martinez (4′), Nicolas Benezet (14′), Nick DeLeon (78′)

Toronto, Vancouver draw on pair of late goals

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A late May Canadian clash finished all even as Toronto and Vancouver drew 1-1 on a pair of late goals after a mostly wasteful performance on both ends.

Toronto had the better first half, but things finished scoreless at the break after Terrance Boyd fired straight at Maxime Crepeau in the visitors’ best chance just before the halftime whistle, while Ali Adnan fired just over from distance. In the second half, the story continued as Boyd whiffed all alone in front of net in the 70th minute and Jozy Altidore‘s follow-up was saved at the near post.

Finally, the breakthrough came with six minutes to go in what appeared to be a winning moment. Drew Moor hauled down substitute Yordy Reyna blatantly in the area, and Fredy Montero delivered the 84th minute opener from the spot. The goal came on Vancouver’s first and only shot on target throughout the match, managing to put just one of its eight efforts on frame.

Unfortunately for the hosts, that lead would not last as Toronto equalized in the final minute of regulation. Nick DeLeon fired in to Altidore at the near post, and the USMNT striker did enough to put Crepeau off and allow DeLeon’s ball to sneak through into the back of the net. It was DeLeon’s goal as Altidore was unable to get a touch, but the ball found its way through anyways.

The draw left the two sides with a disappointing haul, as Toronto lept Chicago into a playoff position but could not find its way past NYCFC into sixth. Vancouver, meanwhile, was unable to climb into the playoff spots, instead stuck in eighth behind FC Dallas via tiebreaker and a point back of Real Salt Lake.

Columbus beats DC in MLS Cup Playoffs thriller

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Penalty prodigy Zack Steffen stopped two penalty kicks to help lead Columbus past DC United at Audi Field on Thursday in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The sides were level 1-1 after 90 minutes, and 2-2 through 120. Columbus scored thrice to DC’s two goals in PKs.

Steffen stopped Wayne Rooney‘s opening attempt of penalty kicks, but Bill Hamid stymied Gyasi Zardes’ third round bid.

Steffen then stopped Luciano Acosta, but the ball bobbled on Patrick Mullins’ chance to win it for the Crew.

So it came down to DeLeon to tie it, and he sent it way over the bar.

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Federico Higuain bagged a brace for Columbus, while Nick DeLeon and Frederic Brillant scored for the Black and Red.

Columbus/DC moves on to face the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals, a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals.

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DC hit the scoreboard first thanks to a rare error from Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

The USMNT No. 1 backstop couldn’t hold onto a rising cross, which spilled out of his hands for Brillant to tap into the goal.

DC’s lead didn’t last long, thanks to 34-year-old Higuain (You thought he was older, didn’t you?)

Like Brillant, the Argentine was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some rough play from the opposition.

Columbus had a few very good chances to retake the lead.

Justin Meram hit a volley over the goal, and Bill Hamid thwarted Pedro Santos’ ambitious distance effort with a flying save in the 85th.

Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta then combined atop the 18, but Steffen made a fine save of his own to force extra time.

It didn’t take long for the visitors to get their first lead of the night, with Higuain heading a pinpoint cross from Afful inside the far post.

Yet that wasn’t it!

A foul far from goal saw Rooney presiding over a deep free kick. He sent it to the back post, it was headed to the top of the 18 by Gyasi Zardes, and De Leon punched it through traffic and inside the near post with a dynamic shot.

Toronto FC 1-0 DC United: Jermain Defoe strikes again in home-opening win

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Jermain Defoe’s third goal in two MLS matches broke a scoreless deadlock and brought the BMO Field crowd to life as Toronto FC improved to 2-0 on the season with a 1-0 win over DC United.

The match was played on a sloppy pitch not quite ready for the season, and the play largely matched the surface. Defoe was one of several players to impress in creation but not finish before his goal, which came in combination with fellow TFC DPs Gilberto and Michael Bradley.

Bradley found his form in the final half-hour, perhaps further-awakened by having to play with a bandage on the back of his head after a tete-a-tete with Davy Arnaud that sent the latter player to the bench for a substitution.

The game’s beginning was met by much applause from an enthusiastic sell-out crowd of 22,591. DC United won a corner kick as the clock struck 1:00 after both teams took turns with a rough pitch, even for this part in the season. The short corner led to nothing and Defoe met an MLS-style rough foul as he attempted to break up the right side with the ball.

TFC then controlled the flow, finding danger through Alvaro Rey. A neat move by Doneil Henry sprung a chance inside the 18, but Defoe’s header failed wide (due in large part to the outside-shoulder rub he was receiving in the box).

Unfortunately, the field was the story for much of the early goings-on. Fabian Espindola’s long free kick even met trouble with footing, as he flashed the high drive into Cesar’s hands. Another chance was muddled, this time for TFC, when a bit of individual magic from Rey ended up slogging between Bradley’s feet before Gilberto shot wild from outside the 18.

Bit of humor in the 18th minute, as a Bradley’s path with the ball went through head referee Silviu Petrescu and Bradley chose to plow through the man in yellow, knocking him into the slop. The collision allowed a defender to catch up to and foul Bradley, but the free kick went to DCU keeper Bill Hamid.

Defoe looked set to find goal No. 3 on the season 20 minutes in, but his right-footed shot was blocked by Hamid before Bradley put the rebound wide. Henry darted forward to feed Defoe three minutes later, but Hamid was able to thwart the Englishman.

As the half passed 30 minutes, DC United began to find possession and offense, with Espindola and Nick DeLeon carrying the threat.

TFC found a great chance in the 35th minute, but Rey’s open, curling effort from the right of Hamid sailed wide and over.

Defoe didn’t find much more luck in the 42nd minute as his left-footed flick from just outside the six beat Hamid but not the goal post. Defoe followed the ball to the post but couldn’t stop it from going out for a goal kick.

Halftime had the eggs on the scoreboard, but the chances were firmly in Toronto’s favor. It made it all the more maddening for the home crowd, who could’ve easily been up a pair of goals were it not for missed chances and Hamid.

And Defoe nearly broke the deadlock (again) in the 48th minute when he found a loose ball in the box but his low shot bounded wide.

Bradley really struggled with his restarts, which were scattershot and, at times, head-scratching, until Defoe’s relentless effort led to a free kick in the 57th minute. This time, Bradley’s laser forced Hamid to punch clear, but the rebound found no Reds in the area.

That was the appetizer, as Bradley found a piece of brilliant passing in the 60th minute, looping the ball into the box where Gilberto fought for the ball, which was cleared into the path of Defoe. He found his third of the year with a no-doubted from just left of the spot and it was 1-0 Toronto FC.

Gilberto came off moments later for TFC hero Dwayne De Rosario.

The heads of Bradley and Davy Arnaud when the TFC midfielder missed the ball and found Arnaud’s face, delaying the match in the 65th minute.

Defoe turned playmaker with a tidy little-look turn for De Rosario in the 76th minute, who fought some rough bounces before forcing Hamid to push the ball out for a corner. It was cleared by DeLeon.

A young pitch invader nearly invalidated a late Defoe breakaway (put over the bar anyway).

Match ball: Captain Steven Caldwell was quite steady in the back for the home side.

Match fall: Eddie Johnson was mostly invisible, but that comes chicken-and-egg with very little effective service from his DC United midfield.

Keep it here for reaction from the locker rooms after the match.

LINEUPS

Toronto FC: Cesar; Caldwell (c), Henry, Morrow, Bloom; Bradley, Osorio, Goncalves, Rey (Orr, 83′); Gilberto (De Rosario, 63′), Defoe

Goals: Defoe (60)

DC United: Hamid; Parke, Fernandez (Doyle, 83′), Franklin, Boswell (c); Arnaud (Porter, 66′), DeLeon, Silva, Kitchen; Johnson, Espindola

Major League Soccer’s draft: yes, it still matters

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We keep writing the obituary for Major League Soccer’s draft. It goes something like this:

Surely with all the other player acquisition mechanisms, and with such emphasis being hammered into every clubs’ academy and the attached efforts to sign home grown talent, the draft will be drift further and further toward irrelevancy, right? Or, at best, it will be deemed nominally significant as a player personnel tool?

Thing is, we’ve been saying that for several years now. And yet the annual college draft keeps churning out talent that gets regular feature in matches, with various levels of difference-making threat.

Major League Soccer’s pre-draft combine kicked off today; the league’s annual SuperDraft happens one week from today, Jan. 16 in Philadelphia.

So, let’s take a very quick look at how the draft continues to impact the MLS game.

In 2012, Darren Mattocks, Kelyn Rowe, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Austin Berry and Matt Hedges all went within the first 11 picks. All are solid MLS starters (or in Mattacks’ case, surely blessed with MLS-starter quality, even if his entire reserve of ability has yet to be tapped).

Four players from the same window of early selections in 2013 are already valued MLS starters: Andrew Farrell (pictured), Carlos Alvarez, Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers. Powers, Brown and Farrell were Rookie of the Year contenders; Brown took the honor.

So, clearly, it’s not just good talent that can be plucked from the draft; potentially greatness is there to be found as well.

After the first 15 picks or so, it becomes a real mixed bag. Yes, there are finds out there; New York goalkeeper Ryan Meara, RSL midfielder Sebastián Velásquez and Houston midfielder Warren Creavalle were all selected near the bottom of the second round in 2012 (between picks Nos. 31 and 37) and any club would be happy to have any of them today. On the other hand, 15 of the 19 picks from that round have yet to make a solid impact in MLS after two seasons.