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Preview: Toronto FC’s CCL journey continues against Mexican giants Cruz Azul

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The current Liga MX leaders stand in the way of TFC and a continental semifinal berth.

Leon v Toronto - Concacaf Champions League 2021 Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images

TORONTO, Canada—After dispatching Club León in the first knockout round, Toronto FC will now face the current Liga MX leaders Cruz Azul in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals.

TFC are the “hosts” in the first leg and will play this game at a location in Florida still to be determined. Kickoff is set for 10:00 pm EST on Tuesday, April 27, with OneSoccer airing this match along with all the other CCL quarter-final ties.

In the previous round, a 3-2 win on aggregate over León was enough for the 2018 runners-up to book their spot in the last eight, a result that many did not see coming given the number of TFC senior players that were ruled out due to injury.

Cruz Azul are one of three Mexican teams left in the tournament following their 8-0 mauling of Haitian side Arcahaie in the second leg of their round of 16 contest (the first leg finished goalless). El Azul will be gunning for a seventh overall title, with their last triumph coming in 2014 when they beat fellow Mexican side Toluca in the final on away goals.

As one of five MLS teams in the quarter-finals, TFC will need all hands on deck if they are to overcome the in-form Mexican side. Victory for Toronto would set up a semifinal showdown against either Monterrey or Columbus Crew.

Despite a disappointing draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps over the weekend, the Reds were bolstered by the return of a few of their first-team stars. Jonathan Osorio marked his first appearance of the season with a late equalizer off the bench and there is hope that he will start the upcoming CCL clash. Jozy Altidore also made his comeback following a short spell on the sidelines as he was subbed on for the last half hour of the 2-2 draw. Like Osorio, Ayo Akinola played his first minutes of the season against Vancouver, coming on for Noble Okello late in the second half.

On the injury front, Alejandro Pozuelo, Chris Mavinga, Erickson Gallardo, Liam Fraser, Julian Dunn and Ifunanyachi Achara were all out on Saturday, with TFC having yet to field what many consider their strongest starting lineup.

It looks like the Reds may be getting Mavinga back for this one, but they’ll also have to get the job done without Richie Laryea, who is suspended for the opening leg.

Armas and co. are four games into the 2021 campaign and currently have one win, two draws and one defeat to their name in all competitions. Toronto have scored seven goals in those four matches, a sign that Armas’ attacking-minded system is indeed in effect. Each of TFC’s seven strikes have come from seven different goalscorers, including defender Luke Singh, who bagged his first career goal over the weekend against Vancouver.

In spite of the bright goalscoring start to the season, TFC have already conceded eight times, a figure that will probably galvanize the Cruz Azul forwards.

The resilience of Toronto’s young crop has been one of the most exciting talking points of the season so far, but in the latter stages of competitions like the CCL, experience comes into play more than anything, and TFC will be looking to their veterans to lead the way against a side who are on quite the run in their domestic league.

Since January 17, 2021, Cruz Azul have gone 14 matches unbeaten in the Clausura, and have won 13 of those 14 games. They’ve remained top of the league since the end of February and have averaged 1.56 goals per game so far this season. Uruguayan international Jonathan Rodríguez leads Cruz Azul’s scoring in the league with nine, while former Sevilla midfielder Walter Montoya is the club’s top scorer in the CCL following his brace in their 8-0 drubbing of Arcahaie. Mexican midfielder Luis Romo, meanwhile, leads Liga MX with five assists to his name, so there’s quite a bit of fire power TFC have to be wary of.

Tuesday’s first leg will be the third meeting in history between TFC and Cruz Azul. The last time the two sides faced off was in the group stage of the 2010/11 edition of the tournament. Toronto claimed victory at BMO Field, recording a 2-1 win courtesy of goals from Martin Šarić and Mista, while the return fixture at the Estadio Azul finished in a goalless draw.

Against all other MLS clubs, Cruz Azul have won eight and lost three in 11 total outings. Their most recent opponent was LAFC, who beat the Mexican side 2-1 in the quarter-finals of last season’s CCL.

The round of 16 triumph over León was TFC’s third win in five against Mexican opposition over a two-legged tie. Despite this, Toronto has only recorded a total of four victories in 17 matches against clubs from Mexico.

As the second most successful team in competition’s history, Cruz Azul will have their sights firmly set on a seventh CCL crown, but as TFC showed in the last round, they are very much capable of causing an upset, so who’s to say they can’t do it again?

Ultimately, you have to beat the best to be the best, so let’s see what Armas’ men can do against quite the formidable opponent.

The second leg is scheduled for May 4 at the legendary Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.