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Injury-riddled Toronto FC dispatches Club Leon in CONCACAF Champions League play

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Toronto FC coach Chris Armas said from the get-go that his team would make life difficult for opponents and he would unleash TFC's young talent.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Toronto FC coach Chris Armas said from the get-go that his team would make life difficult for opponents and he would unleash TFC's young talent.

The MLS side delivered on both counts Wednesday, beating Club Leon 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to oust the Mexicans from the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.

Toronto did it with an injury list as long as Armas' arm, having survived a COVID-19 outbreak during training camp back home and yet another move south of the border due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.  

Second-half goals by Patrick Mullins and Justin Morrow sparked the win in a game that saw TFC's youngsters show they are indeed ready for their close-up.

An unmarked Fernando Navarro got a goal back for Leon in the 80th minute, knocking a Yairo Moreno cross past goalkeeper Alex Bono to set the stage for a furious finale. One more away goal and Leon would have capped a remarkable comeback.

But Toronto held on, with Bono making a 90th-minute save on substitute Emmanuel Gigliotti's low shot. Five minutes of tense extra time ensued.

It was the first TFC win for Armas in a competitive match — a famous victory given the circumstances.

"The locker-room right now is electric," said Armas, who took over in January for the departed Greg Vanney.

"If you were inside the locker-room you'd see all the veteran players — (Alejandro) Pozuelo, Jozy (Altidore) rallying around the young guys that stepped up in a big way tonight," he added.

Pozuelo and Altidore, Toronto's designated players, were just two of TFC's sidelined walking wounded. 

The degree of difficulty grows for Toronto, which moves on to play Mexico's Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals of CONCACAF's flagship club competition. The Liga MX leader thumped Haiti's Arcahaie FC 8-0 Tuesday in Mexico City after the first leg finished 0-0.

The odds were against Toronto, which had to dig deep into its roster to make up the numbers against a Mexican side in season and enjoying domestic success. But TFC was full value for the victory, leaving the Leon players wondering what hit them.

Toronto went ahead in the 55th minute after captain Michael Bradley found Jacob Shaffelburg and the young winger threaded a low cross through the legs of one defender and out of the reach of another. It made for a simple tap-in for Mullins, who replaced Altidore.

Mullins scored with a heavy heart, revealing after the game that his grandmother had passed away in the last this week.

"The team supported me so much through that loss in my family." he said. "So in that moment, in that goal in a big game, that meant a lot to me."

Morrow made it 2-0 in the 71st minute, taking a pass from teenage midfielder Ralph Priso and somehow bundling the ball in as he collided with goalkeeper Rodolpho Cota. TFC's high press made the goal with a Leon defender, under pressure, giving the ball way to Priso.

"It's empowering that we can be dangerous when we have the ball and when we don't have the ball," said Armas.

Toronto and Leon drew 1-1 last Wednesday in Mexico. But while Toronto came into the rematch with the advantage of an away goal — thanks to a Leon own goal — it was missing a ton of talent.

Toronto's injury list grew with Altidore and centre back Eriq Zavaleta both sidelined after starting last week. That meant the team was arguably without at least six starters Wednesday.

Despite the absentees, Toronto had its chances early at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and had a first-half Noble Okello goal controversially called back. Leon, in contrast, looked out of sorts and while it had more of the ball, did little with it.

Altidore, Pozuelo, defender Chris Mavinga and midfielder Jonathan Osorio did not dress. Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and fullback Morrow, who were not part of the matchday squad in Mexico, made the bench along with midfielder Nick DeLeon.

Morrow and DeLeon were introduced in the second half to help defend the lead.

Westberg was not injured but arrived in Florida late due to personal reasons. DeLeon did not dress last week as a coach's decision.

Armas cited the "no excuse mentality" in the TFC locker-room.

"It would have been easy to go to Mexico and start making excuses about this, that and the other," he said. "I'm just really proud of the team tonight … We took it to them. What an effort."

Mullins and 20-year-old defender Luke Singh came in for Altidore and Zavaleta. Altidore had to leave last week's game with a low-grade strain while Zavaleta is believed to have suffered a knock in training and was held out as a precautionary move.

Singh, who signed a second short-term contract to make the squad, came on in the 87th minute last week for his TFC debut.

Armas' starting 11 featured an 18-year-old (Priso), two 20-year-olds (Singh and Okello) and a 21-year-old (Shaffelburg). In all, there were five Canadian starters, including the 26-year-old Richie Laryea, although the Brampton-born Singh represented Trinidad and Tobago at youth level. 

They did not disappoint.

Influential captain Luis Montes returned to the Leon midfield after sitting out last week's game through suspension, while Osvaldo Rodriguez slotted in at fullback. Forward Joel Campbell was unavailable due to quarantine issues after international duty with Costa Rica.

A 29th-minute headed goal by the six-foot-four Okello, off a Bradley cross, was negated by an offside call with Armas grabbing his head in disbelief on the sidelines. There was no video review available.

Toronto will return to Champions League play at the end of the month. First up is the MLS season opener Saturday against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale.

Toronto was playing just its second competitive match since Nov. 24. Leon, in contrast, is well into its season and came into the game unbeaten in its last six outings (4-0-2) in all competitions. 

After a slow 2-6-2 start to its domestic league season, Leon has won four straight in Liga MX play and stands seventh in the standings.

Wednesday's game was originally scheduled for Osceola Heritage Park, about a half-hour drive away. But it was moved after CONCACAF ruled that a retaining wall was too close to the pitch.

Rather than shrink the playing surface, TFC opted to move the game to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that hosted the MLS is Back Tournament last summer. Toronto also played a pre-season game there against Columbus on April 1.

Both Toronto and Leon exited in the round of 16 in their most recent Champions League participation. TFC was beaten by Panama's Club Atletico Independiente in 2019 while Leon was eliminated by Los Angeles FC in 2020.

Toronto reached the tournament final in 2018, losing to Guadalajara in a penalty shootout. The Champions League winner represents CONCACAF at the FIFA Club World Cup. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021

The Canadian Press

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