Toronto FC fell 3-1 to a tactically superior Cruz Azul in the first round of the CONCACAF Champion’s League Quarterfinals.
The season has been as inclement for Toronto FC as the weather in their empty stadium. After dropping the season opener to a determined CF Montreal, as well as settling for an awkward tie against the Vancouver Whitecaps, TFC’s glorious win against Club León in the first leg of the Champion’s League seemed a distant and confused memory.
Thus it was in this dulled state that the Reds found themselves entering battle against Cruz Azul on Tuesday night. While beating León was no small feat, El Azul—the Blues—have not lost in a precious sixteen games and are the Liga MX leaders. TFC would have to attune their high press to be ready for transitions to stand any hope of repelling Cruz Azul, and, furthermore, would need to fully utilize Michael Bradley and the (thankfully) returning Jonathan Osorio to orchestrate a midfield robust enough to create honest scoring chances.
From the very start Cruz Azul was intent on showcasing their authority. The game had barely started before an unforced giveaway from Jozy Altidore (doing a splendid impression of a striker playing centre) allowed a swift run from Brayan Angula right to the Toronto box. At only the 3rd minute he produced a surgical strike dead to the corner of the net.
The goal shocked TFC while Cruz Azul continued their momentum. Their movement was clean and fluid, creating chance after chance while TFC was hustling just to keep pace. By the 10 minute mark the Blues had created two corner kicks for themselves and several scoring chances.
However, the Reds hung on, and with some tactful use of physicality, were slowly able to eek out some more time on the ball. Soon they were stringing together decent passing runs and were making some headway into the Cruz Azul half.
At the 20th minute, some skill and fortune. A cleverly intercepted ball from Justin Morrow allowed a flood of red jerseys into the Cruz Azul box, and with a quickly raised-head, Morrow’s inbound pass bounced off the Blues’ defender right to Osorio who buried it.
Yesterday’s alligator in the TFC training camp seemed to give some inspiration, because after the equalizing goal, things got real leathery.
Minutes later Cruz Azul found themselves at the Toronto box. A crafty set-piece flick cleared the poorly formed defensive line and a smart header by the offense curled past the Reds and into the net. However, the goal was soon reviewed and called offside.
After the deliberation the Blues were quick to shake off the haze. They began to dynamically guard the middle of the field, understanding that most of Toronto FC’s chances originate from there. They also began under-(over?)-cutting TFC’s physicality by dumping long balls right into the box, trying to incite mix-ups. Toronto was trying to keep up, and had solid possession, but never felt in control because of how meticulously the Mexican side were using their superior technicality to control the tempo.
At the 34th minute their focus paid off. A corner kick set-piece saw Cruz Azul deflect the incoming ball via right to the feet of Angula who, once again, made no mistake.
With the lead once again beyond them, the Reds had to restart the process of making their way back into the game. Like déjà vu, they painfully ground toward getting more runs by the stout Cruz Azul formations. Toward the end of the half the Blues seemed content to simply repel TFC and wait for transitions, trusting in their pliable defence; however, the Reds themselves were stringing together better opportunities: a flurry of corners create some very close situations for an equalizer.
Regardless, when the half-time whistle blew, Cruz Azul had survived the late rush and held the 2-1 lead. Toronto looked the weaker of the two sides throughout, but not because of any overall or outright outplay; rather, moments of glaring weakness in the defensive formation, as well as laziness during set-pieces, made them particularly susceptible in critical moments.
The second 45 opened with much less burden than the first. Both teams tangibly felt freer and more knowing in their movements.
Cruz Azul in particularly looked relaxed in the man-to-man life of the game, relying on their overall structure of the team, as well as the skill of players, to wait for opportune moments; what the Blues knew when they walked back onto the field, and what could be felt in their poise, was that Toronto’s great weakness revealed itself not in attrition, but in pause.
At the 57th minute Toronto’s (clearly severe) set-piece vulnerability returned to torture them: a long free kick by Cruz Azul was perfectly placed to defender Pablo Aguilar—poorly marked—who spotlessly redirected it into the TFC net.
With the win all but secured, Cruz Azul began to stymie Toronto in the midfield—the only place where they presented any danger. The Blues were happy to let TFC make runs on the wing all while clogging the centre of the field so that crosses would be quickly neutralized. The few solid windows that the Reds found open were ultimately left that way.
At the 70th minute Toronto seemed out of ideas and, if you will, witless; Cruz Azul, while not starting the game in the most polished form, were looking increasingly in their element as the match went on. TFC were still able to piece together moments and chances, but the Blues defence was often too sound, or Toronto themselves were simply going through the motions without verve or intent enough to change the stakes.
When the game finally reached it’s destination, Toronto FC found themselves in a deep, deep hole. Not only will Cruz Azul understand their strategy coming into the second leg, but they are objectively a better team, and a team with a point advantage at that.
The first half of the match held a lot of potential for the Reds: both Bradley and Osorio were doing a respectable job matching Cruz Azul’s adaptations, and the young guns were showing lots of spirit; however, in terms of finishing, there was total lack of Jozy Altidore in every way, shape, and form; a striker of any kind, in fact, would have worked wonders for the Reds in this match—many balls went wanting inches from the net.
The critical issue, however, is that Cruz Azul has seemed to have figured out Toronto’s bag of tricks; in 45 minutes they were able to suffer TFC’s gritty play long enough to download and overcome it—the second half was a paint-by-numbers affair for the Liga MX leaders; the defence simply cannot be so languid at the onset of every set-piece or strategic attack.
While miracles are something of the very reason why people watch football, and while miracles are in fact the very special province of football among all sports, Toronto FC is going to need something truly divine to see themselves through in the second leg—to make the impossible comeback, Toronto FC will need to push their strategy to an unprecedented level and become a version of themselves that has not yet existed. The truest miracle will be if they can actually pull it off.