TORONTO — There was no one in the stands to see Pablo Piatti's electric BMO Field debut, but it made for a worthwhile trip for a small but vocal band of Toronto FC faithful whose chants and cheers from across the street could be clearly heard in the empty stadium.
Piatti opened his Major League Soccer scoring account with a 25-foot rocket, then added another in the second half as Toronto FC handily defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 on Tuesday.
Playing his first game at Toronto's home stadium, Piatti made his presence known all night, giving the Vancouver (2-4-0) defence fits as Toronto (3-0-3) kept the Whitecaps hemmed in their own end for most of the game.
"I thought he was excellent," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. "His movement was really good, his timing was good. The speed at which the ball moved all night was the key to everything, so it was very easy for guys to set up in the right spots. When you do that then everybody becomes more effective, and that was part of it for Pablo."
Tuesday's match was the first MLS game in Canada since March 7, when TFC beat New York City FC 1-0 in front of a crowd of 26,171.
Stands normally filled with raucous fans, chanting and stamping their feet to create a daunting atmosphere for opposing teams, sat empty due to safety measures put in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto FC starting lineup was belted out over the BMO sound system, each name being met with silence.
But the club's most ardent supporters, normally found in BMO Field's animated south end, did their best to inject some energy into the atmosphere. A number of fans congregated across the road from the north end of the stadium, chanting, waving flags, banging drums and lighting flares from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
"I want to thank the fans that came here," Piatti said through a translator. "We were able to see and hear them. Obviously we saw the smoke and the fireworks, and it was great to have their support during this hard time that everyone is going through.
"I think it's important to be united, because this is a tough moment that's affecting everyone."
Toronto captain Michael Bradley said it felt like a home game, despite the empty stands.
"We miss having 30,000 people inside this stadium pushing us on," Bradley said. "But still, when you talk about routine, waking up in your own bed this morning, having a game day at home, getting in the car and driving down to the stadium. You know, the field was immaculate tonight. Surface was perfect, wet, played really fast, so in all those ways it felt like a home game."
Piatti opened the scoring in the 27th minute as he hammered the ball into the top left corner of the Whitecaps goal, leaving goalkeeper Thomas Hasal with no chance.
Piatti made it 2-0 in the 55th minute after getting a nice feed in the box from Jonathan Osorio and cooly sending the ball past Hasal.
Nick DeLeon put the game out of reach in the 83rd minute when he converted a nice pass from Alejandro Pozuelo.
Tuesday's contest was the first of nine games between the three Canadian MLS teams. TFC, the Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact are staying in Canada for this phase of the season because of border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results during the all-Canadian stretch count in the MLS regular-season standings, and the top team through the nine games earns a spot in the Canadian Championship final.
TFC and the Whitecaps will face off again Friday at BMO Field.
The Whitecaps were fortunate to come out of a Toronto-dominated first half down just a goal. Toronto had nine shots on goal (four on target) to Vancouver's one, and the Reds had six corners, to just one for the Whitecaps.
Piatti had another chance in the 35th minute after a nice set up from Pozuelo, but his shot was deflected over the Whitecaps goal. Jozy Altidore, in the starting lineup for the first time since March 7, had a chance blocked a minute later.
The second half was more of the same, with Toronto continuing to press and Vancouver unable to muster an effective counterattack. Final shots were 24 (eight on target) for Toronto to four (one on target) for Vancouver.
Quentin Westberg picked up the clean sheet for Toronto. He didn't have to deal with much, making saves. Defender Ali Adnan had one of Vancouver's rare chances in the 73rd minute, but his shot sailed over the Toronto goal.
The Whitecaps, who impressed last month at the MLS is Back in Orlando by taking a depleted squad to the knockout stages, look disjointed all game despite having some key reinforcements in their lineup.
Forwards Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts, along with defender Andy Rose and defender/midfielder Georges Mukumbilwa, did not make the trip to Orlando due to personal or medical reasons. Cavallini and Rose started on Tuesday, while Ricketts came on as a substitute in the 81st minute.
Among the supporters' club flags that dotted the south stands was a large black-and-white banner that read "Love Football Hate Racism." Players from both teams knelt before the game, some with a raised fist.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2020.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press