Toronto FC claimed one of their most important victories in club history as they overwhelmed Club León 2-1 in the CONCACAF Champion’s League.
After last week’s lionhearted show by TFC, a palpable anticipation had shrouded the second match against Club León. Chris Armas’ high-pressing, high-intensity incarnation of the Reds had certainly sparked something amongst fans—let’s call it something generically positive, as after one game it can hardly be considered wholly good, neither in the utilitarian nor the moral sense. Regardless, despite many dangling questions, the intrepid performance had kindled excitement and hope amongst the red ranks, both of which ended up serving as an unfortunately corporate segue to the rematch at the—wait for it—ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney World.
It is exactly the sort of locale that would lead to a surfeit of coyly designed puns, and yet, a shadow still lingered over the Reds, squelching any nascent sense of possibility both on and off the field: by every account the Mexican champions underperformed in the first leg; when they were awake, they were the better of the two squads, and what’s more, a team of their calibre was not going to be surprised twice by the same opponent, regardless of how spunky. None of this to mention that Toronto FC were still missing several key players: Alejandro Pozuelo, Eriq Zavaleta, and by far the most surprising, Jozy Altidore.
Actually closing out the first round in victorious fashion was always going to demand a lot of not just Toronto’s youngsters, but the team as a whole, as well as an continuing evolution by the skipper Chris Armas—something in the vein of Emilio Estevez.
The match began with an interesting twist as both sides seemed to have swapped tactics: Club León was pushing with a sharper and more focused verve, while Toronto FC, by no means sluggish, was keeping pace, holding the reckless aspect of their push on a leash.
Through the opening 10 minutes the game’s expected arrangement seemed to be establishing itself. Club León held the majority of possession and often found themselves encircling the TFC box looking for an opening. However, the Reds’ midfield was having a particularly strong start and every transition run held a tangible venom.
At the 15 minute mark Toronto found a groove. Suddenly the strong midfield was looking dynamite, the young guns inventing and pushing with a fury. Several eager opportunities were created, going only narrowly uncapitalized.
Club León, however, maintained composure and were quick to shift the momentum away from them. A few prudent runs of their own coupled with smart positioning quickly balanced the flow of the game.
At the 28th minute some administrative drama. A gorgeous lob over the defensive line by tap dancing Michael Bradley found Noble Okello whose header swiftly guided it into the side of the net. However, the goal was immediately called offside despite Okello being a generous yard onside.
One might say the referee got things a bit... Tangled.
The discounted goal served only to shovel coal into the TFC furnace. The midfield, some measure pissed off, was again pushing with a ravenous hunger, especially Michael Bradley, who hasn’t looked as dynamic (or irate) in months. Richie Laryea and Mark Delgado were all making thoughtful movements, while Jacob Shaffelburg had found multiple tactful balls.
When Club León found a transitional run, the Reds greeted them with a robust defence that kept a sound structure and was exceptionally quick to fill dead spaces; Club León, while not playing poorly, seemed to lack an identity to their effort, as though Toronto FC not laying down and dying in the opening minutes of the match confused the remainder of Club León’s strategy.
Regardless, and despite the tidal shifts in energy throughout the opening 45, the game remained drawn at the half-time whistle. While the Mexican champions held the majority of possession, it was TFC that missed the authentic chances; of the two sides, the Reds entered the half the most angry, but it was Club León that went the most wanting.
As if aware of their dull finish , Club León came out of the locker room with a burst of tenacity. However, Toronto was quick to turn it around, and within five minutes of the second half had created several ample chances; the Reds seemed unwaveringly intent on making something happen.
And then, as seemed inevitable, after 55 minutes of knocking, the Reds decided to simply pick the lock. Bradley made a stout run down the middle, found Shaffelburg on the left wing who—in a moment of prophesy—threaded a pristine ball straight to the feet of Patrick Mullins for the cool slot-in.
And just like that, the scoresheet was no longer... Frozen.
The goal motivated the Reds ever the more and they were soon at the throat of Club León again. The Mexican champions seemed at a near-total loss to the sudden explosion of creativity and class, moving with sloth and passing the ball as if it were a practice session. Through 70 minutes Toronto FC was dominating.
One minute later they went for the jugular.
A wonderfully intercepted ball by Ralph Priso resulted in laser-accurate pass right into the heart of the box where Justin Morrow, straight off the bench, managed to knock the ball past the keeper.
His effort could veritably be described as... Brave.
With another goal secured for the Reds, the game seemed to hit a lull. Club León appeared dispirited while Toronto was content making long passes and going for offensive runs. The result seemed foregone.
But at the 80th minute, seemingly from nothing, Club León had found what many would call a... Miracle.
A nonchalant run outside of the box turned into a devoted effort as a few decided passes pinballed through TFC’s defence and into the back of the net.
With only ten minutes left and advancement in the balance, the screws began to tighten for Toronto FC. Their long, playful balls dried up in favour of sturdy defence, while Club León began to remember precisely why they were champions—every movement felt deadly, their passes had purpose, and their intent was unequivocal.
However, Toronto’s midfield—which had been superb throughout the game—stayed resilient and staying focused, and tracking Club León players relentlessly and shutting down any enterprising ideas. On the defence TFC also looked dedicated. The skeleton suffered few breaks, and the individual players, when asked, performed with moments of seasoned calm and intelligent defending.
When the the final whistle blew, it was more than just a rush of blood. Club León, champions who could truly be considered Lion Kings, rendered without claws by the purgatorial Reds.
Michael Bradley, to use the commentator’s very words, was a beast. Richie Laryea was an indomitable workhorse. Auro and Mark Delgado were distribution machines. The young guns Luke Sing, Ralph Priso, Noble Okello all played with nobility and boldness. The constant supporters Jacob Shaffelburg and Patrick Mullins found their defining purpose. And of course, it would not be a nail-biting TFC game if Bono did not generate some quantity of galactic saves.
Of course it was not a perfect game, but rarely would I feel more amiss if I did not focus on how entirely and how thoroughly it was a team victory. Even with the designated offence on the injury list, the midfield—already mentioned as dauntless and exceptional—was rarely muzzled. The defence was better than it has been in, perhaps, an entire year. With what little resources they had, TFC found a way.
Last week there were many questions about Toronto FC despite their generally positive performance. This match was a statement not just to their opponents, not just to their fans, but to themselves. Almost in spite of the manifold opinions coming into this season, TFC has laid bare not only who they plan to be from here on out, but precisely who they are.
Would it be anywhere else but Disney World that dreams would begin to come true for the Reds faithful? Their Cinderella run is just beginning.