LEON, Mexico — Toronto FC, despite missing some key personnel, held Club Leon to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 tie Wednesday.
A tiring Toronto had to deal with wave after wave of attack late from the Mexican side but somehow held firm with goalkeeper Alex Bono blocking a rocket in the 86th minute. TFC and Leon, who had never met before, will play the second leg April 14 in the Orlando area.
Fernando Navarro scored in the first half for Leon. Toronto tied it up in the 50th minute via an Andres Mosquera own goal.
Navarro opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a spectacular right-footed volley from the edge of the penalty box after Jean Meneses eluded fullback Richie Laryea and found Navarro with a delicate chip. A diving Bono got a hand to the ball but the power of the shot carried it in off the post.
Toronto had eight players in its box but none close enough to stop Navarro's moment of magic.
TFC substitute Erickson Gallardo, demonstrating the aggressive press that new coach Chris Armas has instituted, stole the ball off William Tesillo and tried to thread it through to Jozy Altidore. A sliding Mosquera got a foot to the ball at the edge of the box, deflecting it over goalkeeper Rodolpho Cota to give TFC a valuable away goal.
The Champions League is CONCACAF's flagship club competition, with the winner advancing to the FIFA Club World Cup against other confederation champions.
Toronto was without at least five starters for its first competitive match since its Nov. 24 exit from the 2020 MLS playoffs.
Not dressed were Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, defenders Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow and midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Nick DeLeon.
The club said Pozuelo stayed in Florida to have what is thought to be a mild strain re-evaluated. Mavinga, Osorio and Morrow were not cleared to play by team doctors while DeLeon was a game-day decision. Westberg was late joining camp for personal reasons.
Armas, in his first competitive game at the helm, started 18-year-old Ralph Priso and 20-year-old Noble Okello in midfield with 21-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg on the wing. The Toronto bench included 20-year-old Jordan Perruzza, 22-year-old Griffin Dorsey and 20-year-old Luke Singh, a TFC 2 defender signed to a short-term deal ahead of the match.
Leon was without influential captain Luis Montes, serving a suspension after being sent off in last year's competition against Los Angeles FC.
After a slow start that saw Leon win just two of its first 10 league matches (2-6-2) this year, the Mexican side has returned to form. Leon defeated Toluca 3-1 Sunday to extend its win streak to three and currently stands eighth in the standings at 5-6-2.
TFC opens the MLS season April 17 against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The Toronto-Leon winner will face either Mexico's Cruz Azul or Haiti's Arcahaie FC in the quarterfinals. Arcahaie held the visiting Mexicans to a 0-0 draw Tuesday.
It was 29 degrees Celsius at kickoff at Estadio Leon, where Canada lost 1-0 to France in its opening game of the 1986 World Cup. Attendance Wednesday was pegged at 30 percent of the 31,297 capacity.
Leon came as advertised, shifting the ball around with good passing and movement. But the final ball was often missing or the offside flag went up for the eight-time Mexican champions as they tried to get behind the TFC backline. Toronto also did a good job clogging up space in its own end in the first half.
Both sides went to work early.
Toronto had a chance within the first 30 seconds with Altidore putting a header on target from a Shaffelburg cross. But Cota was well positioned to make the save.
There were dangers signs from Leon in the third minute when Meneses got behind the defence and beat Bono, only to see the offside flag go up. Two minutes later Toronto captain Michael Bradley tested Cota with a long shot.
Okello had a chance in the 19th minute, with Cota out of position after failing to corral a cross but his shot went high. A minute later, a fine cross by Laryea found Altidore in front but his shot went just wide with the flag going up for offside.
Bono got in front of a low Meneses free kick in the 34th minute. Three minutes later, another Leon goal was whistled offside.
Toronto centre back Omar Gonzalez prevented a goal in the 42nd minute with a last-ditch clearing header as Leon threatened off a set piece. Two minutes later, a lunging Joel Campbell just failed to poke the ball in the TFC net off a cross.
Campbell rattled a shot off the goalpost in the 57th. And Leon's Angel Mena came within inches of a tap-in at the far post in the 74th after Altidore limped off, seemingly favouring a leg. An injured Gallardo also had to leave.
Leon won the Liga MX Apertura Liga MX Guardianes title — named in honour of Mexico's health-care workers — in December, defeating Pumas UNAM 3-1 on aggregate after a 12-1-4 campaign.
Leon, managed by former Mexican international Ignacio (Nacho) Ambríz, was ousted 3-2 on aggregate by Los Angeles FC in last year's round-of-16 after squandering a 2-0 first-leg lead.
Toronto was to have faced off against CPL champion Forge FC in the Canadian Championship final to decide Canada's entry in the Champions League. But pandemic-related restrictions delayed Forge's return to training and the decision was made to give TFC the tournament berth and delay the Canadian final to later in the year, with the Hamilton side getting to host.
TFC is making its seventh appearance in the tournament and first since 2019 when it was eliminated by Panama's Independiente in the round-of-16. Leon is making its third appearance.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021
The Canadian Press