Toronto FC dropped the opening leg of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series against Cruz Azul 3-1 on Tuesday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Brayan Angulo opened the scoring just three minutes in when he capitalized on a turnover, cut in-field from the left wing, and picked out the top far-corner with a sweet right footer. Jonathan Osorio drew TFC level in the 20th minute with a tidy finish inside the area after Justin Morrow’s ball into the box bounced off a pair of defenders.
Cruz Azul reinstated their lead immediately, only for VAR to rule the play offside, but Angulo got free at the back-post in the 34th minute to score his second from a corner kick, putting the Liga MX leaders back in the driver’s seat and Pablo Aguilar added a third in the 58th minute from another set-piece to round out the scoring.
Not the result desired in the home leg.
“It's frustrating,” said Chris Armas post-match. “We knew they were not going to change who they are and what they do. It was going to be a day about field position, about second balls... and you go turning over the ball in bad spots and playing the game in certain areas. And set-pieces...”
“It's a good team, but we let ourselves down defending our box again. There's not a magic solution for that – man-to-man or zonal – it's about urgency and alertness and reactions. Clearly we have work to do there and it cost us tonight. It will be hard to win soccer games when that stuff is not right,” he added. “I will figure that out. We're at halftime right now and we're going to Cruz Azul and scoring first. We’re going to make it a game.”
Cruz Azul showed why they have not been beaten in months.
“They are a really sharp team,” said Justin Morrow. “They are not top of the table for nothing.”
“They have good connections, their reactions were really sharp, and the goal in the beginning of the game the guy takes it very well. They put us under pressure. We wanted to come out and start strong and they had a better start than us,” he continued. “These are all things that we need to improve upon, as well as set-pieces, in the second leg.”
Toronto had chances to add to their tally: an Omar Gonzalez header from a corner kick, a wicked Nick DeLeon ball whipped in from the right that was just beyond the stretch of Patrick Mullins, Michael Bradley’s surging late run and shots, twice blocked.
Cruz Azul had allowed just five goals in their last 10 matches between league and Concacaf.
“A few big chances and there would have been more if we can deal with some transition moments the right way,” observed Armas. “Cruz Azul defends their box pretty well. They didn't give up a lot of spaces, but we had a few chances in transition and a couple of set-pieces, but we showed that we can score on them.”
“They have won six or seven out of the last ten, 1-0,” he added. “But we can score and we can create chances and we are going to push to do that at their place.”
The difference on the night was they made the most of theirs.
“They took their chances,” added Armas. “They were good on set-pieces.”
The second leg is set for next Tuesday at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. With a two-goal deficit and three away goals on the books, TFC have work to do.
“The second leg is going to be a tall task to turn it around,” levelled Morrow. “They are a really good team. They were really sharp on the day. We'll expect more of that next week.”
Armas did not rule out the possibility that newly-signed designated player Yeferson Soteldo could be available.
“We are excited for Yeferson to join us. He's a dynamic attacker. He's going to really help us on the attacking end. He brings a lot of quality and for a fairly young guy, he's got some big experiences,” highlighted the coach. “He plays with a lot of passion and we think he's a winner.”
“That's going to be a nice injection into our team,” Armas continued. “Still working through when he can participate. There's a chance it's Cruz Azul and that can give us a nice lift. We are not sure with the logistical hurdles that we have to get through, but we're excited and so is he. We'll welcome him as soon as we can.”
It’s half-time in the series. Toronto have faced such tough situations before.
“We have a good history in the tournament because we've had a team that's been together for a while and we have players who aren't scared of the moment,” said Morrow. “We know that they are a very good team. We know that Mexico City, Azteca, is a very difficult place to go play, but mentally that won't be a hurdle for us.”
“We'll have guys that are ready to rise to the occasion, take our opportunities when we can, and go there to give everything and lay everything on the line,” he continued. “That's a really good characteristic of our team. We are mentally strong even in tough situations and we have been through this before. That's a very big positive for us and that gives us hope going into the second leg.”