EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Not for the first time, Richie Laryea and Alejandro Pozuelo put on a show Sunday.
Laryea had a goal and two assists and Pozuelo contributed a goal and an assist as Toronto FC rallied in the second half to defeat league-leading Columbus Crew SC 3-1 in a battle of Eastern Conference heavyweights.
Toronto (8-2-4) ran its unbeaten streak to four games (3-0-1) while ending Columbus' six-game undefeated run.
Laryea had a hand in Toronto's first two goals — by Jozy Altidore and Pozuelo — and then scored on a brilliant solo effort in the 76th minute, dancing past two defenders before firing home a shot from a tight angle.
It was a game of two halves.
Columbus (9-2-3) led by virtue of a 40th-minute Chris Mavinga own goal after outshooting Toronto 8-1 (2-0 in shots on target) in the first half. It was all TFC in the second half with Toronto outshooting Columbus 9-2 (6-1).
Toronto coach Greg Vanney said his players were frustrated in the first half and letting that emotion get the best of them. That changed when they came back out and, in the words of Vanney, outcompeted Columbus.
"Kudos to the guys," he said. "They stepped out and really took charge ... We took back control of the game. And when you take control of the game, it gives your special players who can do things, more opportunities to do those special things. And those guys answered that call."
Columbus coach Caleb Porter called the result disappointing and humbling.
"I think what's the most disappointing is how well we played first half and then how poor we played in the second half," he said.
"Obviously Toronto deserves a lot of credit. They raised their level in the second half ... Unfortunately when they raised their level, we didn't cope," he added.
Pozuelo and Laryea combined to set up Altidore in the 48th minute. Laryea then set the table for Pozuelo in the 59th before turning heads with his own goal.
With six goals and nine assists, Pozuelo is continuing a MVP-calibre season. Laryea, meanwhile, is proving to be a savvy addition after being cast off by Orlando following the 2018 season.
A midfielder converted to fullback, the Toronto native has shown he can torment defenders when he nears the opposition penalty box.
"I see it all the time in practice," said Vanney. "Our wingers get so frustrated and discombobulated trying to deal with him in training and he's just spinning around and dancing and doing different things and guys can't get close to him."
Pozuelo and Laryea were difference-makers last October in TFC's dramatic 2-1 win over top-seeded New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
The Spanish playmaker scored both goals that night including the 90th-minute winner from the penalty spot. Laryea triggered the spot kick with a marauding run off the bench.
Laryea then danced around fullback Ronald Matarrita and accelerated into the New York penalty box where Matarrita caught up with him as he made the turn towards goal and chopped him down to trigger the decisive penalty.
At the time, Pozuelo was making US$3.8 million while Laryea was at a steal at the league minimum of $56,250. In June, Toronto tore up Laryea's existing deal and rewarded him with an improved contract.
Columbus went ahead Sunday after a fine Pedro Santos ball, aimed at Gyasi Zardes, landed between Mavinga and goalkeeper Quentin Westberg just outside the six-yard box. A sliding Mavinga's attempted clearance went into the goal.
Altidore tied it up in the 48th minute on TFC's first shot on target. Pablo Piatti found Laryea down the right flank and the fullback sent a low cross to Pozuelo, who put the ball on a platter for Altidore to hammer home for his second of the season — and 73rd of his MLS career.
Toronto had chances to go ahead soon after but Ayo Akinola's header went wide in the 51st, Pozuelo hit the goalpost in the 52nd and Laryea was stopped by goalkeeper Eloy Room in the 54th.
Pozuelo made it 2-1 in the 59th minute. Laryea found him just outside the penalty box and the Spaniard left Room rooted to the spot with a shot into the corner.
Laryea then scored his fourth of the season and fifth of his five-year MLS career.
"I haven't scored many goals so probably that's the top one for me right now," said the 25-year-old who matched his entire 2019 total with his two assists on the night.
It was the Crew's first setback since a 1-0 loss to New York City FC on Aug. 24. It also marked only the second time this season that Columbus, which came into the match having given up just a league-low five goals in 13 games, had conceded more than once in a game.
It was the first of six regular-season contests for Toronto at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. All three Canadian teams have been forced to find a pandemic home away from home because of travel restrictions barring U.S. clubs from crossing the border.
The 38,000-seat stadium, normally home to the UConn football team, is named for Pratt & Whitney aircraft founder Frederick Rentschler. It is located on a former airfield that was donated by Pratt's parent company, United Technologies, to the state of Connecticut.
TFC was slated to charter back to Toronto after Sunday's game to spend a few days at home under quarantine before returning to Hartford for a game Saturday against Philadelphia.
"As a group we're looking forward to a quick break ... hug our families, get back on the road and start another stretch and try to take some more points," said Vanney. "But it's a nice night to build off."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2020.