Toronto FC showed an abundance of determination and drive in their unexpected 1-1 draw against Mexican champions Club León on Wednesday night.
The silhouette of uncertainty had in many ways consumed Toronto FC since they last played in November. With Greg Vanney making way for Chris Armas — a head coaching selection that underwhelmed many — and with no frontier players added to the roster in the off-season, a tangible sense of the unknown had permeated the club.
To amplify the tension in just that way the soccer gods adore, having the postponed Canadian Championship game against Forge FC (where, let’s be honest, TFC fans expected a feast) replaced as the season opener with a Champion’s League bout against Club León (a team that has played an encouraging nineteen times since Toronto’s last time on the pitch) added a bit of cartoonish dread to the schedule.
With TFC’s best player and last season’s MVP Alejandro Pozuelo a recent subtraction from the roster, as well as Jonathan Osorio, Chris Mavinga, Ayo Akinola, and Quentin Westberg all missing from duty, the Reds would be forced to field some young names on Wednesday night. All of these separate misgivings have helped underscore the wholesale uncertainty about how the team would perform going into the match.
From the very first touch it was clear that this was no longer Greg Vanney’s TFC. The Armas zeitgeist was in full effect as the forward players surged after the ball, giving Club León players as little working room as possible.
Through the first ten minutes there were some notable positives coming from the Reds’ side. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were both looking considerably more fit and agile than in all of the 2020 season — their distribution and touch were much more in tune. Beyond that, the young guns were showcasing some good hustle in tracking the ball and keeping abreast of their opponents’ movements.
Club León, for their part, held the slightest suggestion of underestimating their North American opponents. They hadn’t fully instituted their usual melody on the pitch, due in large part to the pressure TFC was applying; however, their patience and skill was clear at all times and acted as a constant warning to the Reds.
In the 25th minute it ceased to be merely a warning.
Despite a decently structured defence by TFC, Club León managed a single outside lob that found a beautifully centered Fernando Navarro. With poise and class Navarro produced a spellbinding midair strike that beat Bono’s fingertips, met the inside post and then the back of the net.
Things seem to settle down after the goal, as though the expected narrative had exorcised the game’s nervous demons. Both sides had their chances, but by and by it was Club León that emerged as the possession leader while Toronto FC — actively trying to find their defensive foundation — bounced back and forth to quell their advances.
By the 40th minute fatigue was beginning to show on both sides. TFC’s defence, while constantly tested, was not constantly challenged, save for a few moments when Club León would push too excitedly and find themselves offside. Ultimately both sides were content to simply prod each other while the half simmered to a close.
Knowing they would need a compelling second half the Reds were again off the whistle with vigour. They were pushing with a renewed dynamism, trying different avenues of attack. Ralph Priso and Jacob Shaffelburg deserve mention in this regard, as though their attempts were at times crude, they were full of heart and a certain dauntless attitude.
At the 50th minute that attitude paid off.
After a series of awkward passes, Erickson Gallardo, fresh off the bench, made a perfectly timed press and stripped the ball from Club León. His inbound pass forced a panicked defensive slide out of defender Andrés Mosquera, causing the ball to fly chaotically over his keeper and into the Club León net for an own goal.
This moment sundered the pace of the match. Club León, usually a keen and exacting squad, seemed out of sorts and at times apathetic as to their own lack of consistency. Though they continued to produce moments of class, TFC was quick to stymie momentum by utilizing an unpolished but more importantly constant energy to chase balls and clog attacking lanes.
By the 65th minute it was clear this was no longer predestined win for Club León. Both teams took turns making daring runs and placing clever long balls. The lead was at any moment on a razor’s edge.
But at the 70th minute the Reds were hit with a double rib shot. After a run, Jozy Altidore grabbed and his perpetually injured hamstring and signaled to the bunch. Moments after Gallardo hit the deck, needing a stretcher to leave the field.
Club León used this opening to amp up their pressure, suddenly attacking with greater verve. Through the final minutes of the match the Toronto FC box was peppered with every manner of effort by the Mexican side. Through what seemed an endless stream of breathless close calls, the Reds managed to weather the storm.
When the final whistle confirmed the 1-1 draw, Club León was noticeably frustrated if not outright irate, while Toronto stood ravaged but poised, as well as — undoubtedly — proud.
While it will be hard to extrapolate from a single game any definite signifiers of how the entire season might go, there were a multitude of auspicious portents for the Reds.
While much of their offence was generated from chaotic albeit spirited drives, without Osorio and Pozeulo to really control and direct the tip of the spear, this should be considered a acceptable showcase. The defence, on the other hand, was something Chris Armas has clearly worked on. While it was far from airtight, the structure remained quite sound throughout many of Club Leon’s worst attacks. We should expect (read: hope) that it continues to improve.
All aspects of Toronto FC play fed from a distinctly gritty energy — it felt like the Reds were hustling like they lived in the Bronx. There was an unending audacity in their step, and if ever Club León was about to take the game away from them, they would not shy away from making the match deliberately more dirty — a tactical foul here or there — to keep it within grasp.
For many that criticized the passive style of Vanney’s Reds, your answer has come, and then some.
There were many questions asked about TFC before kick-off, and while many of them will remain going into the second match against Club León next week, this showing should ease the anxiety regarding the answers. Ultimately, if this is what the new Toronto FC looks like, dare I say — and I pause before I say this, and you should before you read it — it might be exactly what is needed.