Over the years, Toronto FC has played more than a few matches at the Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
None has been as memorable as Wednesday night’s.
A 2-1 win over Club Leon that saw the club advance to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League – they will face Cruz Azul, another Mexican opponent, in the next round with the two legs set for late April and early May.
Patrick Mullins gave Toronto the lead in the 55th minute, guiding a ball from Jacob Shaffelburg over the line at the back-post and Justin Morrow added the second come the 71st minute, somewhat inadvertently shepherding an inch-perfect through-ball from Ralph Priso into the Leon goal in a sliding clash with the goalkeeper and a defender.
Fernando Navarro pulled one back for the Mexican side in the 80th minute, setting the stage for a tense finish, but TFC saw out the result with the help of goalkeeper Alex Bono, who came up big on several occasions, most notably a 90th minute denial of Emanuel Gigliotti to see his side move on to the next round 3-2 on aggregate.
“The locker room right now is electric because there's a lot of belief that the players gain from experiences like that,” said Chris Armas post-match. “If you were inside you'd see all the veteran players – [Alejandro] Pozuelo, Jozy [Altidore] – rallying around the young guys that stepped up in a big way tonight.”
“Just really proud of the team tonight and to be part of this organization,” he added. “What an effort tonight.”
As he did in the first leg, TFC Captain Michael Bradley led the way with an immense performance. No area of the pitch was spared his presence, making key defensive interventions and involving himself in the attack, including an unbelievable smooth series of vertical passes up the middle of the pitch that led to the eventual game-winner from Morrow.
“When you see that performance, that's a big player stepping up in a big way, driving the team with the football, with the leadership, with the quality, urging guys on,” began Armas. “He's a coach on the field, urging guys on when their heads are going down. He's been impressive from the day I walked in the door.”
“I see a big commitment for what we're doing, really driving the message and committing fully,” he continued. “Listen, this is Michael. He's a top player. He's a winner. He's a leader. I've not coached a player with that type of leadership skills. It's just inherent and he works on it every day. He's really thoughtful about how he shows up every day and leading by example. That's the best thing he can do: play well.”
Even with the advantage of the away goal in their back pocket, Toronto came out from the opening whistle intent on picking up where they left off in the first leg.
“We came out against a team that we knew was talented and created chances. We wanted to really put them under pressure and do that in a synchronized way where we're all together and causing turnovers and trying to be dangerous once we do get possession,” explained Mullins. “You saw that throughout the first half and into the second half it became even more difficult for them to deal with and dangerous, which led up to our goals.”
The tie delicately balanced, the opening goal was always going to be huge – Noble Okello thought he had it in the first half, only for the offside flag to rob him. In the starting eleven for Altidore, it was fate that Mullins would find the back of the net.
“My goal,” Mullins recalled. “Things happened very quickly. We've trained movements like that all the time and once the ball was in the net, a lot of things hit me. But then I heard Michael come over and say, ‘That's for the Mullins family.’”
“Then things really came down to earth to me,” he continued. “I had lost my grandmother this past week, so I very much had a heavy heart in this game and the team supported me so much through that loss.”
“That moment, that goal, in a big game, that meant a lot to me,” Mullins added. “And then to see how we continued on the last 20 to 25 minutes, even when it got close there at the end, it just shows where our group is at now and a little taste of what we can do when we put it all together as we move forward now with the MLS season starting this weekend and into the next round here.”
Knocking off the defending Liga MX champions is one heck of a way to kickstart the year. Presiding over it all was a calm and collected Armas.
Asked about his lack of outward elation post-match, the coach replied: “Right now I'm smiling inside, but I had my moment with the team.”
“To see Jozy Altidore, the look on Michael Bradley's face, these are winners, they're team guys, to see the young players, for them to experience this, I was right in there with them out on the pitch,” Armas continued. “It's a special moment for us, TFC, and our supporters back home that they can feel part of this.”
“But now it's back to work. This is only the beginning of the season. We're so proud that we were able to put Leon in a difficult two games, home and away. I'm really happy with the results. Now we have to quickly get back to work,” he pivoted. “There's more for this team. There's much more for TFC here, the young guys coming through, veterans. We're getting healthy, we're getting strong.”
“It's an incredible victory for the players and I'm part of it. I'm really proud of the team,” he closed. “We have another game Saturday and get ready for the next round of Champions League.”