Two of League1 Ontario's top performers in the inaugural 2104 season shared the points at Mississauga's Hershey Centre on Saturday night, as Sigma FC and Toronto FC Academy ended all square at 1-1.
There was very little between these young, talented and technical sides - as the scoreline would suggest - and in the end it would be individual efforts that would prove the only route to a scoreline. TFCA's Molham Babouli, the league top scorer, stuck his eighteenth tally of the season on the forty-fifth minute, while Sigma's Michael Matic would bookend the match with well-taken penalty on ninety minutes.
Both sides pressed high up the park, forcing defenders into rushed passes and a large number of midfield interceptions and counter-attacks. The first of such chances came in the sixth minute, as TFCA pressing forced Sigma to cough up the ball in their own defensive third. The Junior Reds made good use of the ball around the area, pressing and probing through one touch play on either flank before Marcos Nunes found a third man combination run, courtesy of Marco Rodriguez, in the box. Rodriguez's quick release was only prevented from finding the goal by the lunging Sigma netminder.
Sigma's play featured slightly more direct passing, searching for quick balls into their central forward before laying off and attacking wide zones. Sigma's right fullback Winter benefitted from such a combo in the twelfth minute, breaking in behind the defensive line and knocking a dangerous cross to a streaking central option who only marginally missed the target.
Only slight differences separated the sides for much of the half, as well-marshalled defences on both sides kept attacking threats to a minimum, or at least confined to the flanks. TFCA continually proved the more imaginative around the area however, and a flurry of quick combinations led to the Reds smashing a close-range effort off the crossbar in the twenty-sixth. Otherwise, it was a battle of defensive and midfield concentration as both reds and blues sought to maintain possession amidst a rabid pressing game.
Deadlock was broken just ahead of the half-time whistle, when Sigma had a headed effort cleared off the TFCA goalline and found themselves desperately chasing a swift Reds counter; all was for nought though, as the ball was quickly swung from flank to flank, stretching the recovering Sigma defenders, before a long aerial ball was dispatched via the head of Babouli. One-nil to the Reds at the break.
The second half commenced in much the same fashion as the first, shaping early as a battle between forward pressing systems, and defensive players clearly mandated to build-out the play on the ground. TFCA had greater success in this regard, with their defenders clearly more comfortable than Sigma counterparts to drive or dribble at pace from the back if passing lanes were closed, drawing their forward markers out before turning back and resetting play into support in the significantly less packed defensive third. Yet TFCA would occassionally overplay, and Sigma punished these errors with quick counters. TFCA were nearly punished for their indulgeance on the ball in the fiftieth minute, when a free quick awarded for a late recovering TFCA tackle led to a direct kick to Sigma deep on the Reds' left flank. The ensuing ball swung in low and hard, nearly finding the bottom back corner, a la the recent Angel Di Maria free kick for Manchester United.
Both sides ultimately found their best chances in 1v1 efforts, with TFCA memorably working Sigma's right flank for a five minute stretch two/ thirds into the match, passing up clear passing combos to rotate a player driving at the Sigma right back. This resulted in space created in the inside and central channels, and a quick penetrating pass into this zone led to a first time effort that was barely blocked by the Sigma defence.
In the end, it would be a Sigma singular effort that decided the result. Sigma's left winger Zajac received a ball wide on his wing, squared up to his marker, and drove past with speed. The Reds defender lunged into the tackle, taking more man than ball, and the official didn't hesitate to point to the spot. Sigma's Matic stepped up to finish the game (not to mention a brilliant exhibition of the skill inherent in League1 Ontario teams) at one apiece.