On Monday night, Toronto FC learned their fate in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League with the draw for the competition held in Miami.
Drawn from Pot 1, Toronto were placed in spot A6, where they will pair up with Panamanian representatives, Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera. The exact kickoff times have yet to be determined, but the first leg is set to be played in Panama between February 19 and February 21, while the second leg takes place in Toronto between February 26 and February 28.
“It's always always interesting to see who is playing who, who is going where,” said assistant coach Robin Fraser, who attended the draw. “We look at our opponent, look at our travel, factors that come into it.”
“Any international game is a tough game, that's what I've come to realize over the years,” continued Fraser. “We're going to focus all of our attention on Independiente.”
Toronto FC assistant coach Robin Fraser alongside Ricardo Escobar (CAI Panama Club Director), Ted Tieu (Toronto FC Sr. Manager, Team Operations) and Miguel Ferreira (Toronto FC Sr. Manager, Business Operations & Game Presentation) | Courtesy CAI Panama
Making their first appearance in the Champions League, Independiente earned their spot by dint of being the champions with the best aggregate record over 2017-18. They won the 2018 Clausura – their first league title, defeating Tauro FC 1-0 in the final, and finished fourth in the aggregate table, while Chorrillo, who took the 2017 Apertura, were sixth.
Las Abejas are somewhat of an unknown quantity for now, at least. But as Fraser warned, Panamanian sides should never be taken lightly.
“My understanding is they play on turf,” offered Fraser about his foreknowledge of Independiente. “I've played against teams from Panama in Champions League before: the games are extremely competitive. If they've won in Panama, they know how to win games. [Panamanian sides are] very tough.”
Toronto now has until February to familiarize themselves and will begin on-field preparations once they report for preseason mid-January.
“We will be well prepared by the time it comes,” Fraser assured. “We will do our due diligence. We'll see a lot of their games, have a good idea of how they play and what to expect when we get there; we'll have prepared our players accordingly.”
The presentation at the draw began with a recap of the 2018 edition, including extended highlights of the final between TFC and Chivas de Guadalajara. In some ways, losing in a shootout made for painful viewing, but, for Fraser, it was also, “a reminder of how good we can be and how fine the line is between winning and losing.”
That experience, of reaching the final last year, will serve Toronto well in this edition.
“Our players now have an understanding of how difficult and uncomfortable it can be to play in these competitions, in adverse conditions,” said Fraser. “Our players grew leaps and bounds by going through that experience last year, understanding that we can compete anywhere. That confidence is going to be great going forward.”
Toronto FC will be looking to go one step further after falling just short of claiming the Concacaf Champions League trophy in 2018. | Courtesy Canada Soccer
And with memories of how it ended, they will do so with some extra motivation in tow.
“We saw what happened having lost a championship in 2016,” reminded Fraser of when Toronto, having lost the 2016 MLS Cup Final, charged back the following season to lift the cup in 2017. “This is an extremely resilient group. A group that is very proud. I'm sure they want to make a difference.”
Though heavyweights like Tigres UANL and Santos Laguna fell on the other side of the draw, Toronto will have to first beat Independiente and then get through a half-bracket that includes Mexican clubs CF Monterrey and Deportivo Toluca FC, MLS cousins Atlanta United FC and Sporting Kansas City, as well as Costa Rican powerhouse CS Herediano and El Salvadoran double-champions, Alianza FC to return to the final.
That is the aim, undoubtedly, but that old mantra, 'one game at a time,' has begun to reemerge.
“Everything we enter, we're trying to win. If we're in the competition, we're giving it our all,” said Fraser. “We would look to advance as far as we can, but it doesn't go any further than Independiente at the moment. That's our focus, that needs to be our focus.”