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Real Esteli 1-2 Toronto FC. Qualifiers! Qualifiers! Ole, ole, ole!

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as Toronto FC averted disaster in Nicaragua and managed to give the rest of the season a sense of purpose beyond the manic wheeling and dealing and lineup experimenting that has filled the last few weeks of what is nominally the 2011 MLS season, but is actually preseason 2012.  6 more meaningful games in the schedule, and a realistically reachable goal to aim for, instead of having a Vancouver-esque 3 months of nothingness stretching ahead of us.  3 more home games to fill out a very thin late season home schedule, and when added to the 3 Canada World Cup qualification games, that means plenty of important soccer at Bmo Field between now and mid November.  The one realistic expectation of success TFC fans could have this year has been achieved, so well done to Aron Winter and the boys.

It certainly wasn't pretty, but TFC played a really smart game, recognising that this pitch was not the place to be trying possession football, they played a long ball game, time and again knocking the ball long down the wings for Plata and Martina/Marosevic to chase, and reverting to no nonsense clearances from defence.  The strategy worked as mistakes were kept to a minimum, and TFC didn't get harmed by any outrageous bounces or bobbles from the pitch.  

The main kudos go to Ryan Johnson, who scored two fantastic goals.  The first, after 37 minutes was an absolute screamer out of nowhere, a beautiful left foot volley belted right into the top corner from about 25 yards out.  The second was simpler, as the Real goalie miskicked a clearance to him on the edge of the box with no defenders around, but he still did very well to settle the ball down and then pick the far corner out on that pitch.  With this performance he proved he can be a very adequate backup at Centre Forward to Danny Koevermans, who didn't start but made a very disinterested substitute appearance in the second half when the game was already in the bag.  This just adds to Johnson's value as he's also had good games on the Left Wing and as an Attacking Midfielder, bringing the talent and versatility that TFC was probably hoping Maicon Santos could provide.

I said when he arrived that he could bring the secondary scoring that TFC so desperately needed, and that looks to be happening, one of the rare occasions that a player improves after coming to Toronto, rather than after leaving.  Hopefully that's a trend that continues as a lot of the new signings have been reclamation projects, players with great potential, or who have showed real talent, but for whatever reason haven't lived up to expectations over the last couple of seasons.  Johnson, Peri Marosevic, Leandre Griffit, Dasan Robinson and now also Eric Avila all fall into that category.  If Johnson can keep this form up, and one or two others out of that group can join him in resurrecting their careers, then the flurry of recent trades will definitely be viewed as a success.

Back to the game, and there were some nervy moments, especially early on, on what was a shocker of a pitch, but with a great small stadium type of atmosphere.  Real took the game to TFC to start off, doing especially well down Toronto's right side as Javier Martina proved very unhelpful to Richard Eckersley.  At the other end, with the score still at 0-0 Ryan Johnson was just a bit too late to a cross, but Martina had no excuse, he just flat out missed the ball from 6 yards out with what was effectively an open goal ahead of him.  That, combined with his defensive uselessness sealed his fate and he was substituted after only 33 minutes, taking up Maicon Santos' recently vacated position on Winter's naughty spot.

Matt Stinson came on, and helped solidify things and Johnson's goal came shortly after to calm the nerves.  Aside from the brief worry caused by the goal from the penalty, which Johnson's second erased, all that was left to worry about at that point was the potential for yellow and red cards and suspensions.  Honduran referee Raul Castro was everything that TFC fans may have feared from a Concacaf Ref in the second half, blowing the whistle at the slightest sign of contact from a TFC player, and handing out two very harsh bookings, firstly to Torsten Frings for kicking the ball away after the whistle, and then to Terry Dunfield for 'deliberate' handball, which was a joke of a decision.  Fortunately by that point, with Real needing 3 more goals, the game was over as a contest, so I could just shake my head and chuckle rather than get as angry as the decisions deserved.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Milos Kocic, who made the start again, and did a very good job to atone for his error in the first leg.  He didn't have many saves to make, and really can't be blamed for the penalty goal, but what was most impressive was his decision making and handling when coming for crosses.  He made a few very tricky grabs, and really commanded his penalty area well, a very impressive comeback performance from him.

To sum up, it wasn't pretty, but they got the job done and now rather than the season meekly fizzling out, when combined with the Canada games, we have what should be a great few months of international football to look forward to.  Being a soccer fan in Toronto suddenly isn't all that bad.