TORONTO – Goalkeepers play the hero and forwards get the glory, but it is in the midfield where games are won or lost.
Toronto FC's midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Marky Delgado put in a herculean effort in Wednesday night's 2-1 win over Tigres UANL in the opening leg of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.
As head coach Greg Vanney forecast, the opening stages were a game of cat-and-mouse, Tigres bossing possession, TFC getting a feel for the play of the Mexican champions.
“It took us a few minutes to figure out how they were playing,” said Bradley post-match. “One of their qualities is flexibility: they can put the same group on the field and play in different ways. We needed to grow into the game.”
With time, Toronto, tired of being toyed with, proved they were no mere mouse.
“Once we did, we went after things,” continued Bradley. “We gave away a bad goal, but it didn't faze us. The mentality to respond in that moment was that of a big team, a group of guys who aren't scared. To come back and win the first leg 2-1 puts us in a good spot. It's half-time. There is still a lot of game left.”
That opening phase saw Tigres stroke the ball around BMO Field, their movement dazzling, their ability to maintain and regain possession impressive. It would have been easy to wilt.
“It's hard to push the tempo of the game when you don't have the ball,” said Vanney. “But after 20 minutes we started to step out better, getting pressure on the ball, closing sides off.”
“Once it opened up, we had some space between lines, allowed our guys to run and work, and combine. The game started to look more like we wanted it to,” continued Vanney. “If we can play in their half of the field that's a positive thing. You want to keep Tigres as far away from our goal as possible.”
Having managed that threat for the opening half, Tigres were able to take the lead on a broken play, Eduardo Vargas pouncing, cat-like, in the 52nd minute.
It was then that the tables turned.
“[Tigres] is a very good team, by far the best in Mexico over the past few years,” said Bradley. “We were able to make the game difficult on them. When we had to be deeper, we were able to deal with things. As the game when on, we were able to press them, be more aggressive, and win balls higher up the field, which was positive for us.”
Vanney heralded the work of Delgado and Osorio in taking over the middle of the park post-match: “Both put a huge amount of work into this game, were very good in their execution.”
Delgado set up the first goal, with a deft, poked ball that found Jozy Altidore down the right-side of the box on the hour-mark.
“We got a good rhythm in the second half,” said Delgado. “Moving the ball, found ways to get through them and had lots of opportunities.”
Delgado credited the role reversal: “Being patient, waiting for your moment to expose the other team. Whenever they push forward, an opportunity opens to counterattack. We wait on that. The style we have is an aggressive one, the quality of players we have helps with that.”
And Osorio added that crucial second goal in the 89th minute.
“We had some pressure, did a good job keeping them in their zone, waves of pressure,” described Osorio of the build up. “It came back to Mike, gave a really good ball outside to Seba. Seba took it down and I saw that I was alone... I knew he was going to put it across.”
“I was waiting for it,” added Osorio. “It went a little behind me, so instinctively I back-heeled it and it went in.”
It was his second goal in the Champions League through three matches.
“Oso's mentality continues to make the difference,” said Bradley. “He continues to fight for everything he gets. He's been one of our best players; scored a big goal tonight. We're going to continue to need big contributions from him.”
That comes as no surprise to Altidore: “Oso can tell you, I'm hard on him. Because I think there is so much more there; he has more ability than he even knows. It's all about confidence, understanding that he can be that player.”
While it was the two advanced midfielders who got on the scoresheet, behind them, keeping the trains running on time, was Captain Bradley with yet another commanding performance.
“Michael did a great job,” said Vanney. “Recognizing when to step out of his deep midfield position to close things off and help organize the group as the game progressed.”
Added Altidore: “His position is important, protecting the back-line. He's an anchor there. He snuffed out a lot of plays. Some games you need that. He was terrific.”
Toronto FC now look forward to “more of the same” in the second leg on Tuesday.
“A team that likes to play, likes to press, that creates,” said Altidore of what he expects in the return match. “It's a fun battle for sure.”