Injury-riddled Toronto FC dispatches Club Leon in CONCACAF Champions League play

·5 min read

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Second-half goals by Patrick Mullins and Justin Morrow gave injury-riddled Toronto FC a 2-1 win on the night and 3-2 aggregate victory over Mexico's Club Leon in Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League play Wednesday.

An unmarked Fernando Navarro got a goal back for Leon in the 80th minute, knocking a Yairo Moreno cross past goalkeeper Alex Bono to set the stage for a furious finale. One more away goal and Leon would have capped a remarkable comeback.

But Toronto held on, with Bono making a 90th-minute save on substitute Emmanuel Gigliotti's low shot. Five minutes of tense extra time ensued.

Toronto advances to play Mexico's Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals of CONCACAF's flagship club competition. The Liga MX leader thumped Haiti's Arcahaie FC 8-0 Tuesday in Mexico City, outshooting the Haitians 23-0, after the first leg finished 0-0.

The odds were against Toronto, which had to dig deep into its roster to make up the numbers against a Mexican side in season and enjoying domestic success. But Toronto was full value for the round-of-16 triumph, leaving the Leon players wondering what hit them.

Toronto went ahead in the 55th minute after captain Michael Bradley found Jacob Shaffelburg and the speedy winger threaded a low cross through the legs of one defender and out of the reach of another. It made for a simple tap-in for Mullins, who started in place of the injured Jozy Altidore.

Morrow made it 2-0 in the 71st minute, taking a pass from teenage midfielder Ralph Priso and somehow bundling the ball in as he collided with goalkeeper Rodolpho Cota. TFC's high press made the goal with a Leon defender, under pressure, giving the ball way to Priso.

It was the first win for new head coach Chris Armas — a famous victory given the circumstances.

Toronto and Leon drew 1-1 last Wednesday in Mexico. But while Toronto came into the rematch with the advantage of an away goal — thanks to a Leon own goal — the MLS side was missing a ton of talent.

Toronto's injury list grew with Altidore and centre back Eriq Zavaleta both sidelined after starting last week. That meant the team was arguably without at least six starters Wednesday.

Despite the absentees, Toronto had its chances early at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and had a first-half Noble Okello goal controversially called back. Leon, in contrast, looked out of sorts and while it had more of the ball, did little with it.

Altidore, Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, defenders Chris Mavinga and midfielder Jonathan Osorio did not dress. Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and fullback Morrow, who were not part of the matchday squad in Mexico, made the bench along with midfielder Nick DeLeon.

Westberg was not injured but arrived in Florida late due to personal reasons. DeLeon did not dress last week as a coach's decision.

Despite the long list of absentees, Armas said there would be no excuses whatever happened Wednesday.

Mullins and 20-year-old defender Luke Singh came in for Altidore and Zavaleta. Altidore had to leave last week's game with a low-grade strain while Zavaleta is believed to have suffered a knock in training and was held out as a precautionary move.

Singh, who signed a second short-term contract to make the squad, came on in the 87th minute last week for his TFC debut.

Armas' starting 11 featured an 18-year-old (Priso), two 20-year-olds (Singh and Okello) and a 21-year-old (Shaffelburg). In all, there were five Canadian starters, including the 26-year-old Richie Laryea, although the Brampton-born Singh represented Trinidad and Tobago at youth level.

They did not disappoint.

Influential captain Luis Montes returned to the Leon midfield after sitting out last week's game through suspension, while Osvaldo Rodriguez slotted in at fullback. Forward Joel Campbell was unavailable due to quarantine issues after international duty with Costa Rica.

Montes came close in the sixth minute but his shot went just wide after a fine cross from Rodriguez. Singh had a free header off a Bradley corner in the 12th minute but could not put it on target.

Okello, put through by Mark Delgado, had two great back-to-back chances to score in the 16th minute but Cota got a hand and then a shoulder to the ball.

The speedy Shaffelburg was a threat down the flank throughout the first half.

A 29th-minute headed goal by the six-foot-four Okello, off a Bradley cross, was negated by an offside call with Armas grabbing his head in disbelief on the sidelines. There was no video review available.

Laryea was put in alone in the 50th minute but Cota was quick off his line to block the shot.

Morrow and DeLeon were introduced in the second half to help defend the lead.

Toronto was playing just its second competitive match since Nov. 24. Leon, in contrast, is well into its season and came into the game unbeaten in its last six outings (4-0-2) in all competitions.

After a slow 2-6-2 start to its domestic league season, Leon has won four straight in Liga MX play and stands seventh in the standings.

Wednesday's game was originally scheduled for Osceola Heritage Park, about a half-hour drive away. But it was moved after CONCACAF ruled that a retaining wall was too close to the pitch.

Rather than shrink the playing surface, TFC opted to move the game to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that hosted the MLS is Back Tournament last summer. Toronto also played a pre-season game there against Columbus on April 1.

Both Toronto and Leon exited in the round of 16 in their most recent Champions League participation. TFC was beaten by Panama's Club Atletico Independiente in 2019 while Leon was eliminated by Los Angeles FC in 2020.

Toronto reached the tournament final in 2018, losing to Guadalajara in a penalty shootout. The Champions League winner represents CONCACAF at the FIFA Club World Cup.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021

The Canadian Press