No road wins this season. A minus 22 goal differential. Six games lost where they gave up three goals or more, including a 4-0 loss and a 6-2 loss. Nineteen points, the third lowest in the league. More trades than a Wall Street stock broker. To be blunt, there has been little for Toronto FC fans to be cheery about this season.
However, with their 2-1 victory over Real Estalí in the second leg of their CCL preliminary round match-up, Toronto advances in this prestigious continental tournament fairly easily. Last week, the Reds broke a scoreless first half with two goals from sub Joao Plata to win the BMO Field leg, while constantly challenging the Estalí defense with 19 shots. The diminutive forward had missed Toronto’s prior match with a visa issue but made his presence felt in last week’s game.
Last night, needing a draw or win to advance, Toronto traveled to Nicaragua and came out with an impressive 2-1 win. The Estalí away goal was negated in the 37th minute when Ryan Johnson launched an impressive strike top-shelf past Estalí keeper Carlos Mendieta to put Toronto up 3-1 on aggregate. Estalí would draw closer when a penalty was called on newcomer Andy Iro in first-half stoppage time for a handball (his second penalty in as many games). Manuel Rosas converted the PK to make it 1-1, 3-2 on aggregate.
But just as in their last CCL game, it was a brace that sealed the deal for Toronto. Johnson, who came to Toronto in a trade with San Jose, collected a poor clearance from Mendieta and on the break beat the keeper to seal the deal for Toronto early in the second half. For the rest of the game the Reds’ defense did a good job holding down the home team despite playing in a hostile environment.
Toronto now advances to Group C in the CCL where they will face Pumas UNAM (Mexico), Tauro (Panama), and the winner of FC Dallas/Alianza FC (El Salvador). But more importantly advancing in this tournament gives the Reds so much needed momentum in the second half of the MLS season. They have already won the Nutrilite Canadian Championship (their spot in the CCL) and continuing to play international clubs helps give the team as a team needed experience.
To recount all of the trades Toronto have made would be a separate post in itself, but there is no doubt the team needed an injection of new talent. In year one of the Aron Winters experiment (which would make a great reality show), the players from last year’s roster were not cutting it in the new 4-3-3 Total Football system. Rather than take previous years’ approach of making a few offseason moves to placate the fans, the Reds’ decided to torpedo this year’s roster now to move up their rebuild.
Despite the new players, the results haven’t been there quite yet. They struggled in July but ended on a positive note with their 2-2 comeback draw with Portland. Their upcoming schedule gives them a chance to continue building some momentum. Their next match is Saturday at RFK Stadium, where DC United has struggled all year. After hosting Real Salt Lake, they travel to Chicago (below them in the conference) and host the suddenly struggling Earthquakes. If they can string together some positive results, they can finish the season with a modicum of decency and continue to try and advance in the CONCACAF Champions League. The 2011 MLS season will not end in the playoffs for Toronto, but there is a chance they can finish strong with an eye towards a deeper run using their new system next season.
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