Play Your Kids.
Missing several potential starters – Alejandro Pozuelo, Chris Mavinga, Jonathan Osorio, Quentin Westberg, Ayo Akinola, Nick DeLeon, and Justin Morrow – Chris Armas and Toronto FC had to dig deep for Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw away to Club Leon in the opening leg of their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 clash.
Starts for Ralph Priso, Jacob Shaffelburg, and Noble Okello, key substitute roles from Erickson Gallardo, Liam Fraser, Griffin Dorsey, and Luke Singh, a 20-year-old defender signed to a short-term contract on the day of the game, were the order of the day.
“What's so special about this group is that we didn’t look at all the excuses that were there: not having a good preseason, not having our best player on the field. We didn't look at that. We were looking towards this challenge,” highlighted Omar Gonzalez post-match. “We knew it was going to be a tough game and guys stepped up.”
“Our young guys – Noble, Luke Singh who debuted tonight, Shaffelburg, Erickson, these guys didn't get a lot of minutes last year and here they are playing in the first game, in a very important game for us. I'm just very proud of those guys,” he continued. “They're growing more and more, they're stepping up and as a team you need to have everyone step up and tonight they did that. I'm very happy for them and now we need to do it again next week.”
Priso picked up exactly where he left last season, impressing at every turn with his composure and tenacity. Okello, fielded a little higher than usual, displayed some of the more attacking qualities to his game – that long stride and a deftness with the ball that nearly crafted a breakthrough for TFC. Shaffelburg’s dynamism on both sides of the ball was constant, while Gallardo’s smart pressure led to the vital away goal. Fraser and Dorsey, the latter of whom played more minutes last night than in the previous two seasons, were equal to the task of quelling the rising Leon attacks in the final quarter of an hour.
Singh, making his first team debut, was singled out.
“He just keeps getting better every few days, Luke,” said Armas. “He's an aggressive centreback that can pass well, he's open to learning, he's hungry and he’s got an athletic profile that's special, good in the air.”
“He’s got some good attributes, but I'll tell you to see him come into the game there and put out a couple of fires, it's a proud moment for the club,” continued the coach. “Bill Manning and Ali Curtis have done a really nice job bringing young players along and I've said that I'm going to play young players – look how many played tonight. It's a testament to the club and the leadership, but for Luke Singh it's a proud moment for him, his family, and our club.”
As much as for the players, it was a special night for Armas too: his first on the sidelines for TFC.
“What’s going through my head is that it’s half-time: get the boys home, get back to the hotel, we'll leave in the morning and we start our preparation. That the guys dug deep and together we earned a point on the road at a difficult place, I'll always remember,” he allowed. “But listen, I said before and I'll finish by saying, it's a hard seat to get into: head coach of Toronto FC. It's a big club, a special club. I'm grateful for the opportunity and I'm proud of the first result.”
The second leg is set for next Wednesday in Orlando, Florida.
“We have work to do,” levelled Armas. “They pose many different challenges: they're very strong on the flanks, one-v-one, they can cross the ball well. On the night they put a lot of pressure on us and in moments we're going to have to keep the ball more, we'll have to use the ball in different ways.”
“We had moments of it in the game, it just was a difficult task against a good team,” he continued. “So we'll look hard, we'll make some adjustments to deal with their direct play, and then we can can use some of the second half tactics to start the next game.”
Added Gonzalez: “We have to continue to be strong defensively; hopefully we can be even more aggressive at home and show a little bit more of the way that we play football. I'm excited about that, to show more the way of TFC, what [this club] is all about. It's going to be another great match because Leon is a very good team.”
1-1 90 minutes in.
“It's a great result for us. I'm not going to get ahead of ourselves and say that it's an advantage and that we're sitting pretty, no, because it’s football. Anything can happen and we're facing a very good team, who have very talented players,” cautioned Gonzalez. “Next game, they get one of the best players, [Luis] Chapito Montes, back, that's going to elevate their game even more.”
“It's a great result for us, but there's still a lot of work to be done. We consider this half time,” he added. “And so, we know that we have a lot to prepare for the next game, it's going to be another battle, but I'm excited because it's going to be at our place.”