TORONTO, Canada—Against all the odds, Toronto FC have progressed to the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) quarter-finals after a 2-1 win (3-2 on aggregate) over Club León at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Bay Lake, Florida.
Despite the absences of many core first team players, the young guns, led by talisman Michael Bradley, dispatched of the reigning Liga MX champions in what should be considered as one of TFC’s greatest CCL performances.
Toronto are now through to the next round for the first time since 2018 and will face another Mexican opponent in Cruz Azul, who thrashed Haitian side Arcahaie 8-0 on aggregate in their respective tie.
Chris Armas and co. will undoubtedly be in high spirits not just for the upcoming quarter-final, but also for the MLS season opener against C.F. Montreal this weekend.
From a defensive masterclass to the constant panache on attack, TFC delivered in almost all aspects of the second leg, so let’s take a look back at five significant takeaways from Toronto’s conquering of León:
O Captain! My Captain!
Take a bow Michael Bradley. The midfield maestro engineered a momentous display for his side, especially given that the likes of Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio were not part of the squad once again.
Bradley truly was the man for the big occasion as his presence on the pitch, coupled with the youthful energy of TFC’s young crop, spearheaded a victory not many saw coming. Even at 33 years of age, Toronto’s captain still has something to prove, and fans will hope that a seemingly rejuvenated Bradley can replicate his second leg performance for the rest of the season.
It’s also worth noting that the American is now TFC’s all-time leader in competitive starts for the club. An absolute icon.
Defence Wins Championships
In spite of conceding a late goal, TFC’s backline was yet again rock solid when it mattered.
First and foremost, we have to talk about Luke Singh. The 20-year-old signed his second four-day contract ahead of the second leg and much to the surprise of everyone, was included in Armas’ starting lineup. With quite the stage for his first-team audition, Singh remained composed at the back and ensured he did his part to contain León’s attacking threats.
Mullins on Luke Singh: "We were all just so happy for him because we've been seeing these types of levels that he has been hitting in training & I think we all had a lot of belief in him to step into the lineup tonight. He started the game well & that continued on throughout."— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) April 15, 2021
Singh’s centre-back partner on the night, Omar Gonzalez, was once again a thorn for the León forwards. His transformation from last season is already evident and the American international looks set to form a formidable partnership with Chris Mavinga once the Congolese defender returns from injury.
Auro Jr. and Richie Laryea were also forces to be reckoned with both on defence and offence. Laryea could have grabbed a goal of his own, while Auro Jr. was a frequent menace when joining the attack.
All in all, depth and composure at the back is going to be vital for TFC’s title aspirations this season.
TFC II Represent
Six of the players in the starting lineup are former TFC II players, which goes to show just how impactful Toronto’s minor league affiliate has been over the last few years. We’ve already spoken about Singh, but let’s give him one more shoutout for a stellar first start for the club.
Along with Singh, fellow TFC II alumni Alex Bono, Marco Delgado, Ralph Priso, Noble Okello and Jacob Shaffelburg all starred in an unforgettable night for TFC.
Bono, who played for TFC II between 2015 and 2016, made an incredible save late on to deny León an equalizer that would have sent them through on away goals. Beyond ‘the sticks’, Delgado played a role in the build up to the opening goal and bossed it yet again in a high calibre game, while youngster Ralph Priso provided the assist for Justin Morrow’s goal and continues to be quite a dynamic asset to the TFC midfield.
Noble Okello should have not seen his goal ruled out in the first half, but he put that aside to deliver another monstrous showing in the No. 10 role. And last but not least, Shaffelburg. Following a sublime pass to set up Patrick Mullins for the opening goal, as well as another electric performance down the left flank, the Canadian startlet seems duly ready for action this campaign.
Armas ball is here to stay folks. Based on the first 180 minutes of TFC action this season, a sense of flair has been injected into the squad, and it was most definitely on full display during the 2-1 victory.
The high-press system has worked alongside the youthful energy that the kids have brought to the squad over the two legs. TFC look to be spending more time in the opposition half and have clearly improved at taking the game to their adversary.
Toronto could have and should have scored more in that first half, but all that really matters is that the job is done and the system works. With Pozuelo and Osorio nearing a return, let’s see how they contribute to TFC’s exciting new style of play.
Bring On Cruz Azul!
With one Mexican team taken care of, who’s to say the lads can’t do it again? TFC have won three of their five two-legged ties against Mexican teams, and with a new era dawning at the club, as could another inspiring cup run.
TFC last played Cruz Azul in the 2010/11 CCL, where the two sides faced off in the group stage. Toronto were able to claim victory at BMO Field, recording a 2-1 win thanks to goals from Martin Šarić and Mista, while the return fixture at the Estadio Azul finished goalless.
Toronto FC has the wind in their sail already, and the players will know that momentum will be crucial ahead of what’s set to be an exhilarating 2021 campaign.