The Concacaf Champions League bracket gods have been unkind to Toronto FC.
Drawn in the Round of 16 against the defending Liga MX Champions Club Leon, TFC now find themselves squaring off against the current table toppers, Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals, with the first leg set for Tuesday night in Florida.
“Nothing really favours us, but we tell our own story,” replied Mark Delgado, asked about the cruelness of those aforementioned fates. “Nobody can do that for us. We’re the ones who step out on that field and we're the ones who can control what's going to happen out there.”
Toronto have some experience in these matters, knocking out Tigres UANL and Club America before taking CD Guadalajara to penalty kicks in the final of the 2018 edition of the tournament.
“In 2018 we had a good run against some top teams in Liga MX. We were able to compete and battle with them. The same for Leon: we got a big point in Mexico and then we came home, we battled, we stuck it to them, we fought for the whole 90 plus minutes,” explained Delgado. “We didn't just sit back, we played our style, we came at them, put them under pressure.”
“And we're going to do the same thing for Cruz Azul,” he promised. “We're going to battle, we're going to fight, we're not going to sit back, we're going to be out there on top of them. Hopefully we can continue this good run that we have going and get a result.”
The Mexican side come in red hot.
Unbeaten in 14 league matches Cruz Azul sit atop the Liga MX standings. Having lost their opening two matches of the season they have since dropped points in just a single match, a lonely draw. And despite a scoreless draw in the away leg of the previous round of the Champions League, they dispatched Haitian side Arcahaie FC 8-0 on aggregate.
Toronto know what awaits them.
“We’re excited for the matchup,” said Chris Armas. “We were excited for the Leon matchup, we knew it would pose certain challenges for us and now this poses lots of different challenges. We will be ready.”
“We know that they've been hard to beat, they've been on quite a run. They're a powerful team, a team that plays very direct,” he elaborated. “It will be about field position and understanding where they want to play the game and how they get there. Easier said than done, but we have a good understanding of what we'll be up against. It's really about us and executing now.”
In contrast to the series against Club Leon, TFC will be playing the first leg at ‘home,’ with the second set for the grand stage of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Just another wrinkle to consider.
“We have to understand that at the end of 90 minutes it's halftime,” said Armas. “There's things you can do that can cost you in leg one, but in all my experiences we have to stick to who we are and go after leg one, which means we're going to be aggressive and be in attack mode.”
“‘Playing it safe?’ I don't know how to coach that, I don't know how to talk about that; that gets you in trouble,” he weighed. “Passive defending, passiveness in general... you can expect us to be aggressive and attack.”
“We have an experienced group, lots of players that have played in the Champions League, a CCL final, so much of what that game will require is built in,” Armas added. “But our, let's call it home field, we must take care of leg one in an intelligent, aggressive way.”
Though home isn’t home, TFC will look to make the most of it.
“We want to get a result, to put ourselves in a good position on the away leg,” said Delgado. “We’ve got to be sharp from minute one, we got to be ready, attentive to details and not fall asleep in any second or minute of the match.”
“We’ve got to be at our best,” he stressed. “The communication has to be there, right from the first whistle. And then from that we got 90 minutes-plus to go at them and get a result.”
As a prelude to the visit of Cruz Azul, TFC had a visitor of sorts to the training ground this week.
“A visitor? You mean an alligator,” replied Armas. “All I can say is there was an alligator, a massive alligator and my players are running towards the alligator as I went the other way.”
“We talk about being fearless and aggressive around here, but not at that moment,” he smiled. “It's maybe par for the course here in Florida, when you’re by water, but it was cool for the guys to see, really up close and personal. It was kind of a cool way to start training.”
Bring on the Liga MX leaders.
“They are a good team and they've been able to push through their league. They've been in tight games, but they've been able to experience success and be consistent with that by being very direct, playing the game in the opposition’s half and overpowering teams,” observed Armas. “Like against Leon we understand the challenge and we have a team that's ready. We're getting healthier and we have a lot of confidence that we can put them in a difficult game.”