Playing with a lineup almost as thin as the air in Leon, Mexico, Toronto FC had a rather thin chance of securing a result in Concacaf Champions League Round-of-16 play on Wednesday night.
You might say it was a near im-Poz-ible task.
But the Reds rose to the occasion, battling to a 1-1 draw against defending Mexican champions Club Leon — the first-ever meeting between the two clubs. TFC survived a late onslaught by a determined and somewhat frustrated host side at steamy Estadio Leon to hang on for the tie.
TFC star attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo, last season’s MLS MVP, missed Wednesday’s match, and did not make the trip to Mexico, after suffering a mild thigh strain in a pre-season game against Columbus last Thursday. TFC officials confirmed on Tuesday night that Pozuelo did not travel but asked that the news not be released as the club didn’t want to give Leon advance warning.
“There’s been some gamesmanship down here,” said one TFC official.
But Pozuelo wasn’t the only veteran player unavailable to new TFC coach Chris Armas. Also missing was goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, defenders Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow and midfielder Jonathan Osorio. Leon captain Luis Montes was also not available as a result of his being sent off in a Champions League match against LAFC last season.
To say the Reds’ had their backs against the wall for the match was a major understatement. Besides missing key players, the Reds have had a shortened pre-season as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak in Toronto last month, managing to get in only two pre-season matches compared to Leon having already played 13 regular season Liga MX games, going undefeated in its past four. TFC also travelled to Leon, which sits at a lofty 6,000 feet (1,815 metres) above sea level, only two days before the match, hardly enough time to acclimatize to the altitude.
The Reds left everything on the pitch. And though they were definitely outplayed a times, there is sense that they have a real chance to turn the tables in the second match of the two-game total goals series next Wednesday night in Kissimmee, Fla.
“We look around, we’re all that we have,” said veteran TFC centre back Omar Gonzalez of his short-handed side. “We’re here again in Mexico, tough stadium to play in, tough conditions, and I’m really proud of the group because we were supporting each other from training beforehand, getting each other ready. And the game, whoever stepped in, whoever got subbed in, it was like, ‘Lets go! Let’s go!’ And that was just beautiful. Tonight was a good team result and we’re excited for the next game.”
However, there was some troubling news from the match. Veteran forward Jozy Altidore, who played with energy and pace and looked fitter than he has in years, seemed to tweak his hamstring in the second half and left in the 75th minute. Altidore has had trouble staying the field the last two seasons because of various injuries.
Erickson Gallardo, who came in to start the second half, orchestrated Toronto’s goal in the 50th minute when he stole the ball on a high press and right-footed it towards Altidore. The pass was deflected into the goal by Leon defender Andrés Mosquera. Gallardo came to Toronto with significant fanfare, but has only played in 11 matches since joining the Reds in 2019. Armas said, as far as he’s concerned, the Venezuelan midfielder has a clean slate under his leadership and the move to substitute him into the match for Noble Okello paid off.
Returning to Champions League for the first time since 2019, the Reds did well to control the play early. Jacob Shaffelburg, the pride of Port Williams, N.S., set up Altidore for a header in the first minute inside the box. Shaffelburg, who has not seen the field a lot since joining the Reds two seasons ago, played well, creating numerous chances with his pace and energy. Altidore headed it right at Leon goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota on the cross by Shaffelburg. The Reds almost scored when Okello left-footed a shot just inside the centre of the box over the goal. In the absence of a few veteran starters, Armas started three very young TFC players in midfielders Okello (20), Ralph Priso (18) and Shaffelburg (21).
Leon went ahead 1-0 in spectacular fashion in the 25th minute when Fernando Navarro scored with a right footed shot, taken mid-air from outside the box that went off the post and into the bottom right corner past a sprawling Alex Bono, who got his fingers on the ball, after a nice cross by Jean Meneses. Leon had a couple of goals in the first half called back on offside. Gonzalez, who was solid on the backline, headed a loose ball over the goal on a dangerous Leon chance near the end of the first half. The entire TFC backline played well.
Leon’s most dangerous player, Joel Campbell, left-footed a shot off the post right shortly after Toronto tied it. The Emeralds started to pour on the pressure in the final 20 minutes against a tiring Toronto side, just missing on a number of chances as the match heated up. With 10 minutes left, Shaffelburg took an elbow to the face from Campbell.
Leon dominated statistically, holding a 70%-30% advantage in possession as well as 18-5 in shots and 5-2 in shots on goal.