TORONTO, Canada—April not only means the start of the new Major League Soccer (MLS) season, but also TFC’s highly anticipated return to North America’s annual club competition, the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL).
Following the postponement of the 2020 Canadian Championship due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a compromise was made with Forge FC to grant TFC qualification to the 2021 edition of the continental tournament.
Toronto will play reigning Liga MX champions Club León in the Round of 16, with the first leg taking place on Wednesday, April 7 at the Estadio León. Kickoff is set for 8:00 pm ET, with OneSoccer set to air all CCL games in 2021 after recently acquiring the Canadian broadcast rights for the competition.
The last time TFC played a CCL tie was back in February 2019, where they were eliminated by Panamanian side Independiente following a 5-1 defeat on aggregate in the first knockout round. The season before that was far more memorable, as TFC made an inspiring run to the final, but were defeated by Chivas Guadalajara in a heartbreaking penalty shootout.
TFC’s overall CCL record currently stands at 15 wins, 10 draws and 12 defeats in 37 matches since their tournament debut in 2009.
As Chris Armas prepares for his debut season at the helm of the club, TFC’s squad has undergone minimal changes since the end of the 2020 campaign. Pablo Piatti’s departure opened up a designated player spot in Toronto’s roster, but the financial strains caused by the pandemic have made signing a new DP increasingly difficult.
Ahead of the start of the campaign, TFC were able to play two friendly games against the USL’s Fort Lauderdale CF and the reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew.
Toronto comfortably dispatched of both sides, beating Fort Lauderdale 3-0 and the Crew 4-2. Moreover, the TFC faithful were able to get a small taste of the high-press system that Armas plans to utilize this season.
Veteran forward Patrick Mullins got on the scoresheet in both games, while talismans Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley grabbed a goal each over the two high-scoring games.
With seven goals in their 180 minutes of preseason action, TFC’s attacking cohort—who will be without Ayo Akinola and Achara—will have their sights set on bagging a few past León, as the Mexican club, who currently occupy eighth spot in the Liga MX, has conceded 17 goals in their first 13 league games of the 2020/21 campaign.
León have averaged just over a goal a game so far this season, with Ecuadorian winger Ángel Mena leading the way with five league goals to his name, including the winner against Toluca this past weekend.
A notable name within León’s ranks is Costa Rican and former Arsenal forward Joel Campbell, who initially joined joined the Mexican club on loan from Italian side Frosinone in 2018, before signing on a permanent basis the following year.
This will be the first meeting in history between TFC and León, but based on Toronto’s record against Mexican teams, Armas’ men will need to flip the script if they are to overcome their upcoming opponent.
In 15 competitive matches against Mexican opposition, TFC has only won three of them. León has never played against a Canadian side before, but their only tie against an MLS team ended in a 3-2 defeat on aggregate to LAFC in last season’s Round of 16.
When speaking to the media after the win over Columbus, Armas stressed that his players must remain focused at all times during high-caliber games:
“In Concacaf and the CCL, and in the biggest games, especially a tournament like that, it’s set pieces, it’s the staying tuned in – we say, ‘Can you stay online, really focused in?’ Because [the players] will be suffering and there will be parts of the game that aren’t perfect, so it’s really about staying focused.”
As Toronto puts the finishing touches on preparation for their first CCL game in over two years, fans will hope that a promising cup run may be on the cards starting Wednesday.
HOW TO WATCH
Who: Club León vs. Toronto FC
When: Wednesday, April 7, 8:00 PM ET
Where: Estadio León, Mexico