Toronto FC edged a very young Vancouver Whitecaps squad 2-1 at BMO Field on Wednesday night to open the two-legged semifinal round of the Amway Canadian Championship.
Goals from Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley gave the Reds a victory, but a very late consolation goal by substitute Kekuta Manneh kept Vancouver close before the series heads west next week.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the respective lineups, TFC started out strongly and nearly opened the scoring within the first several minutes. Defoe and Brazilian striker Gilberto had good looks in front of the Vancouver goal, as the young Whitecaps seemed nervous and mistake-prone within the first quarter hour.
Despite wave after wave of Toronto attack, the Whitecaps held on. A Marco Bustos goal-line clearance kept Defoe off the score sheet temporarily, all while Vancouver could barely get out of its own end.
Defoe finally cracked the Vancouver defense in the 28th minute, after a Gilberto through ball put the Englishman in alone on Carducci. The TFC designated player strode into the penalty area and coolly slotted home underneath the onrushing goalkeeper, giving his side a well-deserved 1-0 lead.
It was nearly a second for Defoe just three minutes later as the striker made a deft turn inside the penalty area and unleashed a shot, but this time Carducci had it well covered. Five minutes after that, Alvaro Rey and Kyle Bekker had back-to-back golden opportunities inside 10 yards, but neither player could find the quality to direct the ball past the young 'Caps netminder.
Against the run of play, the final chance of the first half came to the Whitecaps after Russell Teibert slalomed into the TFC area and tried to chip Joe Bendik. The Toronto goalkeeper got a strong hand on it, knocking the ball into the path of Vancouver's Nicolas Mezquida, whose shot was heading for goal but cleared off the line by Doneil Henry.
The match opened up considerably in the second half, as the young Whitecaps grew in confidence and TFC looked to widen the gap. It made for an entertaining back-and-forth affair for most of the final 45 minutes, with both teams getting their chances.
While TFC had most of the run of play, the best unfinished chance came to Vancouver in the 75th minute. The 'Caps forced a big save out of Bendik after a good counterattacking sequence, which led to a wild final quarter-hour.
After a few close calls for both teams, Toronto finally got its second in the 89th minute as Defoe found a streaking Bradley down the right side, and the American raced into the 18-yard box and hit a low shot past Carducci to seal the victory.
However, Manneh gave Vancouver a lifeline just moments later with an injury-time stunner that gives the Whitecaps everything to play for in next week's second leg, which will take place Wednesday at BC Place.
Follow GOAL CANADA on Twitter