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Toronto FC showed 'grit & character' in first leg against Club León

It takes something special to come away from a difficult situation, on the road in Mexico, missing key pieces, with a good result.

Toronto FC did just that on Wednesday night, drawing 1-1 with Club Leon at Estadio Leon to open the season and their Round of 16 Concacaf Champions League series on a strong foot.

The home side opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a wonderstrike from Fernando Navarro – a right-footed volley from the top of the box that kissed in off the right-post. But TFC did not let their heads drop. They redoubled their efforts and got the precious away goal when substitute Erickson Gallardo pressured a turnover out of Leon’s William Tesillo and Andres Mosquera’s intervention saw the ball loop into his own goal.

“I love the way we stuck together,” said Chris Armas post-match. “I love the way we stepped on the field and straight away we were going to stick to being who we are, be aggressive on the night, and that gets us the goal from a pressing situation.”

“I love the way the guys dug deep into the second half,” he added. “That's what I think is admirable from the team: overall a gutsy performance; that they stuck together.”

Defender Omar Gonzalez too was proud of the effort.

“The team showed well tonight,” he replied. “Tough circumstances: going down a goal, playing at altitude, first time playing in front of fans, which was amazing, in a very long time. And the guys showed grit, the guys showed character, to not just sit back.”

Toronto could only tip their caps at Navarro’s opener.

“The goal that was scored tonight was class, you take your hat off to the guy, you applaud,” said Gonzalez. “There was nothing you could do about that.”

But it was in sticking to the game-plan that TFC got level.

“The reason we got the goal was because we were being aggressive and Erickson was aggressive at that moment, stole the ball, and made something happen, made them a little bit uncomfortable,” Gonzalez applauded. “Did we show that a lot tonight? No, because it was very tough for us. Having had the tough preseason that we have had, we knew that it was going to be a long night and we had to play the game smart.”

“We did that, we got a great result, and now we go back to Orlando and [have] another week to get better, another week to prepare more,” he added. “I'm excited for what's to come.”

Making the game uncomfortable for the hosts was the game-plan from the start.

“It's tougher to do than to talk about it on a whiteboard or a video session,” said Armas. “Trying to take away certain spaces, trying to limit certain areas, understanding where they're dangerous, that was the goal coming in, but you can still see that it's difficult to deal with.”

“Our big centrebacks dealt with most of the crosses and in the midfield, we didn't want to go to five in the back too early, because putting pressure on the ball was going to be important. We didn't want to just get pushed back, although we did. Then it became about taking care of the wide areas,” detailed Armas. “We want to play our game. We had to deal with a lot of what they do. We would like to have the game on our terms, with and without the ball, but it was nice to see our guys go down 1-0 and still be aggressive. Gallardo comes in and takes a moment to press and cause a turnover and we score a really big goal. It's a little bit fluky, but for us, we want to force mistakes and we did that.”

Game one of 2021 is in the books, but the work has only just begun.

“On nights like this, as the head coach who is learning [about] these guys everyday, games like that give me information,” began Armas. “It gives them information about who they are, how deep they can go, how to go some places they haven't gone before, physically, to suffer that much, at altitude.”

“We didn't want to make a talking point for an excuse, but that's a good team that we played against, a difficult situation with preparation that was a challenge,” he allowed. “I learned a lot.”