TORONTO – In the rigours of Concacaf, nothing comes easy.
Toronto FC were reminded of that stark lesson last Tuesday when they were humbled 4-0 by Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera in the opening leg of their Round of 16 Champions League series in Panama.
Confronted with a setback, the Reds were forced to react.
But rather than point fingers following the disappointment of the first leg, Greg Vanney and his side are going back to basics: assess what happened and why, make the required adjustments and be ready to go out and implement them.
Phase one was already well underway before the final whistle blew.
“We didn't arrive in the game with enough intensity, enough of that emotional, competitive side. That's first and foremost before anything else,” said Vanney on Friday. “We met today, everybody raised their hands and said, 'Yeah, that wasn't good enough.' That side, no excuses, has to be better.”
“When I watch back, show the guys the game, there are a few mindset things that we need to pay far more attention to and the night could have been very different,” continued Vanney. “We knew their intentions, talked about them going in. They hurt us in transition simply because of our lack of being attentive to our responsibilities behind the ball.”
“That coincides with not being dangerous enough in the attacks,” added Vanney. “There was real opportunity there for us: we didn't recognize it, take advantage of it. That puts us in a situation where we're vulnerable. It became putting ou fires, when our discussion is about preventing fires.”
It was a rude awakening in the first competitive match of the season. But as TFC has experienced over the years, two-legged series are neither won nor lost in 90 minutes alone. At half-time, there is a lot of soccer yet to be played.
CAI head to BMO Field for the second leg on Tuesday night.
“After the game there was a lot of frustration. The guys were embarrassed,” recalled Vanney. “That just wasn't us; what we need to be and represent. It was quickly about diagnosing what went wrong.”
Phase two began there and then.
“Watching this one back again was pretty painful. I'd never felt that way,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono. “But it's important that we do that, learn from the mistakes we made, and continue to move forward as a group; we believe we can make something of this tie.”
Added Vanney: “The [guys] believe there is an opportunity. It's a big hole; we have to take it little by little over the course of the game. It's not something that we can throw everything at it from the first minute. I don't think that makes sense for us anyways.
“We have to be looking short and long term about our vision of how we want to play and win games. Chasing a 4-0 game is not a smart play. We need to go one goal at a time, get one goal every 20 minutes, and set ourselves up to be in a position to push the game into extra time and finish it off there."
Phase three: execute.
“I expect to see a different intensity, a different purpose, a different speed to our game. On a very basic level the ball should move faster on our field, everything should be faster,” said Vanney, cognizant that the opponent too will be formulating new plans, adjusting to the changing landscape.
“Independiente will try to protect themselves: they've got four goals to try to protect for 90 minutes. I don't see them getting out and chasing us around, exposing themselves,” continued Vanney. “In the moments they did [in the first leg], we got through them into some pretty good spots. The questions are: will they play four or five in the back? What is going to be their mechanism to protect themselves?”
“I don't expect to see an entirely different team: they'll still play for the transition moment, protect themselves, and put numbers behind the ball as often as they can,” added Vanney. “We need to be prepared.”
Regardless of Tuesday's result, the lessons from Panama's first leg will serve as a reminder ahead of a long, gruelling season.
“It's a tough lesson to learn in your first game,” said Bono. “It's [one] we need to keep with us for the season. We want to be a stingy team, we want to be tough to score against. We have to get back to that identity. We want the narrative to be this team doesn't give up goals.”
“That's tough to get behind now for people reading, but that's our goal, our job,” added Bono, eager for round two. “We can't give up any home goals. Take it one goal at a time. See if we can get an early one and flip the switch.”