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Toronto FC extends unbeaten streak to five games under interim coach Javier Perez

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TORONTO — Unbeaten in five games, Toronto FC appears to have turned the corner after a dreadful start to the MLS season. But eight points out of the playoffs, it now has to turn ties into wins.

Toronto (3-8-5) improved its record to 2-0-3 under interim coach Javier Perez on Sunday with a 1-1 tie with Nashville SC, marking its third straight draw at BMO Field since returning home last month.

"When you walk away after the final whistle and it's another point at home, you're disappointed. We really are," said defender Omar Gonzalez, who opened the scoring for Toronto. "I guess the silver lining is that we're five games unbeaten. We're much better than we were a month ago. We're improving.

"Today we controlled the majority of the game with our possession. And so we looked a lot better. That's the silver lining and we just have to keep moving forward. The wins are going to come."

They might be tough to come by this week. Toronto follows Nashville, which stands third in the Eastern Conference, with a midweek game at fifth-place Philadelphia before hosting fourth-place New York City FC on Saturday.

Toronto stands 10th in the East.

"We need urgency to get more points," said Perez, a native of Spain. "Because the further we go, we need to get closer to the teams closer to the playoff positions. But we have to remember we are halfway through the season ... We still have games in front of us."

Wednesday will mark the halfway point for TFC, its 17th game of the campaign.

Still Perez saw the Nashville draw as another step forward for a team still working on fixing its game. 

Nashville (6-1-9) stretched its own undefeated streak to eight (4-0-4) with its league-leading ninth tie of the season. Its run started with a 3-2 win over visiting Toronto on June 23.

Nashville came into the game with twice as many points (26) as Toronto. But it was an even, entertaining contest albeit without that many clear chances.

Defender Robert Castellanos, in his MLS debut, scored for Nashville, which outshot Toronto 12-6 (3-2 in shots on target) and had six corners to Toronto's four.

To the delight of the 9,985 fans in attendance, Toronto went ahead in the 20th minute on a Gonzalez header off a Yeferson Soteldo free kick after Michael Bradley was taken down by Brian Anunga. It was a play honed on the training ground, with a little bit of trickery.

Soteldo took the free kick seconds after Bradley placed the ball on the ground, catching the Nashville defence off guard and finding the six-foot-five Gonzalez for his first goal since Sept. 29, 2019.

"I've been dreaming of another goal," said Gonzalez.

Castellanos evened the score in the 41st minute off a long Dave Romney throw-in. The ball dropped into a group of six players in the Toronto penalty box and deflected off Castellanos' shoulder, beating Alex Bono low to the near post.

The goal was a disappointment given Toronto had worked in training on preventing Nashville's long throws.

"Everyone was in the right position and it just sneaks through ... You could see our heads drop a little bit right after the goal because we know that we cannot allow goals in like that. We let them off the hook," said Gonzalez. 

"They had absolutely nothing going on in the first half and then we give up their goal and they're back in it."

The five-foot-three Soteldo was in the thick of Toronto's attacks, showing off his marvellous ball control and deep bag of tricks. The elusive Venezuelan is soccer's equivalent to a greased pole — hard to get a handle on.

He drew a yellow card for Dax McCarty in the 67th minute after the Nashville captain was forced to drag him down from behind. Soteldo has scored or assisted on six of Toronto’s last eight goals (two goals, four assists).

Toronto was without Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, who was held out of the game as a precautionary measure after feeling "some discomfort" in his leg. Perez said the reigning league MVP is day-to-day.

It marked the first-ever visit to Canada for second-year Nashville, which won both of its previous meetings south of the border with Toronto including a 1-0 extra-time playoff victory last November that ended TFC's season.

Nashville coach Gary Smith is no stranger to BMO Field, however. He coached the Colorado Rapids to the MLS Cup there in 2010, with a 2-1 extra-time victory over FC Dallas.

Toronto kept a mindful eye on Nashville's strike force of Randall Leal, Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong, who scored or assisted on all but one Nashville goal in the month of July. Former Ivory Coast youth international Ake Loba, a designated player signed in early July from Mexico's Monterrey, came on for Nashville in the 77th minute.

Toronto wanted a penalty in the 15th minute when Jozy Altidore went down after contact with Anunga. But referee Fotis Bazakos waved play on. Another call for a Toronto penalty when Richie Laryea went down in second-half stoppage time was ignored.

The visitors came on the final minutes of the half with Canadian fullback Alistair Johnston's diving header forcing a good save from Bono after Castellanos' goal. Johnston, part of Canada's team at the Gold Cup, had a fine game down the right flank.

Perez made four changes to the starting lineup that won 2-1 in Chicago last weekend with Eriq Zavaleta, Justin Morrow, Laryea and Altidore slotting in. Laryea and Zavaleta had been at the Gold Cup with Canada and El Salvador, respectively. Jonathan Osorio, who was also at the CONCACAF championship, entered the game in the 58th minute.

Altidore started for the first time since May 22. He had made three substitute appearances since returning to the first team after eight weeks on the outs with the club.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press