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Champions League: 5 takeaways from Toronto FC’s first leg defeat to Cruz Azul

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Mountains are meant to be climbed right?

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Cruz Azul at Toronto FC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Canada–Toronto FC has a mammoth task ahead of them following a 3-1 first leg “home” defeat to six-time CONCACAF Champions League winners Cruz Azul.

The first leg result means that TFC will need to win the return fixture in Mexico by a goal margin of at least three in order to progress on aggregate. If Toronto wins 4-2, they would advance via away goals, but seeing as the Reds have not scored four in a game since July 2020, that scoreline seems like quite the stretch considering the calibre of their opponent. Moreover, Chris Armas and co. will need a performance like no other if they are to set up a semifinal clash against either Monterrey or Columbus Crew.

Jonathan Osorio made his long-awaited first start of the season last night, but star men Chris Mavinga, Alejandro Pozuelo, Richie Laryea and of course new signing Yefferson Soteldo were all absent. With no MLS action for Toronto this weekend, the TFC faithful will hope for some new, much needed additions to the match-day squad ahead of next week’s second leg, where the Reds’ new Venezuelan starlet will hope to make his highly anticipated debut.

VAR was also used for the first time in the competition’s history and much to TFC’s benefit, Cruz Azul had a goal disallowed and a penalty shout denied as a result of video consultation.

Despite luckily being only two goals down on aggregate, nothing short of a momentous performance in Mexico will salvage any lingering hopes that TFC may have of keeping their CCL dream alive.

Following a game that will surely be scrutinized for the next few days, here are five takeaways from the disappointing defeat in Tampa.


Defensive Woes Continue

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Cruz Azul at Toronto FC

Much of the post-match chatter will revolve around the defensive struggles TFC continues to face. And don’t worry, we’ve dedicated a whole slot just to talk about the atrocious and costly defending on set-pieces.

Toronto has now gone 10 straight games (dating back to October 24, 2020) without a clean sheet. In the first five fixtures of the 2021 campaign, the club has let in 11 goals, nine of which have come in their last three games against C.F. Montreal, the Vancouver Whitecaps and now Cruz Azul. Alex Bono has played in every match so far this season, but Quentin Westberg’s first start of the year seems very much on the horizon now.

Chris Mavinga’s presence was once again missed and the club will hope that he is ready to make his season debut in the return leg next week. In a competition like the CCL, lacklustre defending will cost you ties, and last night, TFC paid the price for multiple lapses in concentration at the back.

While it is still unknown if the club are in search of a new centre-back, many will look forward to Mavinga’s potential return to the side for the second leg in Mexico.


Tomorrow’s Training Agenda: Set Pieces

Boy oh boy…

TFC’s inability to defend set pieces was on full display at the Raymond James Stadium. Cruz Azul’s second was scored via a corner and their third from a free kick, yet both strikes were definitely avoidable.

The Mexican side’s second saw Bryan Angulo pounce on a loose ball to turn it in while almost the entirety of TFC’s backline stood flat footed as Cruz Azul re-gained their lead. Pablo Aguillar scored El Azul’s third and he simply wanted to get his head on the ball more than any other Toronto player in the box.

It was quite evident that the Reds lacked urgency throughout the game, but during set-pieces, Cruz Azul took full advantage of some abysmal man-marking and lifeless defending from TFC.

Now we know for sure what Chris Armas and the lads will be working on in training for the foreseeable future.


CCL Oso Strikes Again

The most capped player in Toronto FC’s history marked his first start of the season with a goal that gives the Reds a glimmer of hope coming into the second leg. Osorio has now scored five CCL goals in 11 matches since 2018 and has found the net against more opponents than any player in the club’s history. Cruz Azul was the Canadian international’s 22nd victim, a statistic provided by the one and only Martyn Bailey.

With two goals in as many games already to his name, Toronto’s very own will hope to continue building momentum as the season progresses. It’s probably safe to say we are very excited to see what Oso can do alongside Soteldo and Pozuelo.


Alti-done?

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Cruz Azul at Toronto FC

Is Jozy Altidore finished?

The American veteran was at fault for Cruz Azul’s first goal and was largely ineffective in the final third before getting substituted for Patrick Mullins on the hour-mark. As for numbers, Altidore touched the ball only 19 times, had a pass accuracy of 50%, won zero aerial duels, and gave away possession almost 10 times.

In three appearances so far, the Toronto FC legend hasn’t looked sharp, granted he had his season disrupted by injury early on. While Altidore also hasn’t had the service of reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo or even Yefferson Soteldo, one would expect more out of your designated player, especially since there are players behind him who are capable of taking over his starting role.

Ayo Akinola has been the player fans have called to replace the veteran American in the starting lineup, but the 21-year-old forward is seemingly not at full match fitness just yet. Mullins, who started and scored in the round of 16 second leg against Club León, is also a viable contender to take Altidore’s place in the eleven.

With six days until the return leg, fans will be anxious to know who will get the nod up front in Mexico City.


The Best Is Yet To Come

As previously mentioned, TFC were without Pozuelo, Mavinga, Laryea and Soteldo last night. Laryea will be back in the fold for the second leg after serving his one-game suspension, while the club are hopeful Soteldo, Mavinga and Pozuelo are in contention to play their first minutes in red this season.

Some might say the TFC team we’ve seen so far is what we’ll get for the rest of the campaign, but with the injury list getting shorter week by week and a possible domestic deal or two still to come in before the June 1 primary transfer deadline, fans can stay hopeful that the best is indeed yet to come.

All in all, overturning a 3-1 first leg “home” defeat may be improbable, but not impossible.

One thing’s for sure though, the Reds certainly missed new short-term signing Ale Gator and his fearful presence up front.