Toronto FC were knocked out of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League on Tuesday night. Cruz Azul won the second leg 1-0 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, bringing the aggregate score to 4-1, and they will move on to the semifinal round when the competition resumes in August.
TFC had their chances through the opening half-hour to claw their way back into the series, but another goal from Brayan Angulo, a stunning half-volley from distance in the 27th minute, his third against Toronto, all but sealed the result.
Chris Armas focused on the bigger picture post-match.
“The first thing I'm going to say is this team, this Toronto FC team, is an impressive group. We have talked about no excuses and there's a lot of factors that would have made it easy to quit in some of these games, to just start blaming and making excuses,” began the TFC coach. “These guys have been dealt a difficult hand: no home field; away from their families; a tough stretch back in Canada; our DPs are not healthy at the moment. So many little things: a really difficult draw in the Champions League; hot days for [MLS] games, mid-day; short rest.”
“And these guys, not once did they make one excuse,” he continued. “This team stands together. They came here tonight with full belief. They put Cruz Azul in a difficult game in the first half. We showed up tonight with a belief and a plan.”
“I'm proud of the team, they don't quit, they stick together,” Armas added. “They went for it tonight.”
The Liga MX table toppers were just too much for a team still early in the process.
“We knew it was a difficult match-up,” explained Armas. “Tonight in the first half we created some good chances. Maybe if we score the first goal, we can make it a really interesting game.”
“We are proud that we went to Leon and we tied [Club Leon in the Round of 16] 1-1, came ‘home’ and beat Leon, and we really threw everything we had at Cruz Azul,” he continued. “Congratulations to Cruz Azul and Juan Reynoso, a very good coach, and we wish them well.”
Overcoming a 3-1 defeat in the home leg was always going to be a tall task.
“We let ourselves down in the first leg,” said Michael Bradley. “You give away a goal after two or three minutes – it's a bad way to start the home leg. Get back to 1-1 and, on the night, struggled dealing with set-pieces. That's the difference in the first leg.”
“It means that for the second leg, your backs are up against the wall and you have to push things a little bit,” he continued. “We pushed things in a good way in the first half. We did a lot of the things that we wanted to, couldn't quite put together the right plan to get the goal, and they scored another great goal. That’s, for me, the story of the two legs.”
Armas concurred: “The set-pieces, leg one.”
“We're home, we know we can play against this team, we can give them some trouble,” he continued. “We let ourselves down with some set-pieces in leg one. Tonight, it's different, we give up a really special goal. Good players can make plays.”
The Concacaf Champions League often comes too early in the season for MLS teams. Even more so for TFC this year with their interrupted preseason, dislocated from home, not fully healthy, and awaiting the arrival of reinforcements.
“MLS teams would all love to play these games in the middle of our season, end of our season, because it could be even a better match-up, better game, better for the supporters and for the competition,” said Armas. “I'm sure [the other teams in the tournament] would love to see our best.”
Attention now turns to the MLS regular season and continuing the work in progress: up first, a tasty fixture against Armas’ former side the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
That match kicks off a string of appetizing league clashes through May. Following the Red Bulls TFC will face Columbus Crew SC, NYCFC, and Orlando City SC in short order before closing the month with a second date against MLS Cup Champions Columbus.
“When we finally get healthy, when we finally add the pieces, it will feel and look different,” forecast Armas. “We can play both sides of the ball, this team can defend with organization and we can attack with good ideas and quality players. We are coming together.”
“These tournaments and a little bit of adversity brings groups together,” he continued. “It's bringing us together and I can see that. We're close. We're getting closer. We're getting healthier. And when we do we're going to be a team that can win consistently in the league.”
Concacaf action is done for this season, but TFC will take the lessons and look to be back in the mix next year.
“The games in this competition are high level,” summed up Bradley. “You understand that you have to be at your best to give yourself a chance. You have to make plays in key moments and so we'll take away the experience of four really, really good games early in the season.”
“As much as it's still a lot of the same players, it's still a new team,” he continued. “Chris has come in and has new ideas and ways that he wants to tweak things and improve things. We're going in a good direction. It's not paid off in as big a way as we would have liked just yet, but everybody's confident that it will. So we've got to now reset and get ready for a really big MLS portion of the season.”