TFC takes care of business against Colorado in Champions League

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (centre) takes the ball between Colorado Rapids' Enzo Martinez (right) and Jack Price during first half CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 action in Toronto on Tuesday, February 27, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

• Colorado Rapids 0, Toronto FC 0
• Toronto wins Champions League series 2-0 on aggregate
• TFC hosts 1st leg of quarter-finals versus Tigres next Wednesday.

TORONTO – Champions take nothing for granted. That’s been the mantra of Toronto FC in the build-up to the 2018 Major League Soccer season.

So, it wasn’t at all a surprise when Toronto’s starting lineup came out an hour before kickoff of Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League match versus the Colorado Rapids.

TFC coach Greg Vanney opted to use the exact same “A team” as last week’s 2-0 road win in Colorado, a sign of just how serious he was taking the second leg of this Round of 16 series, even with a two-goal advantage. Vanney could have rotated his squad, confident in the fact TFC was essentially through to the next round, while giving key starters some rest ahead of this weekend’s MLS season opener. Instead, he fielded the strongest side possible. Never let up. Toronto didn’t.

Exactly 80 days removed from its MLS Cup victory, TFC returned to BMO Field for the first time and earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw against the Rapids before 23,383 fans to move on to the quarter-finals where it will play Mexican club Tigres.

Vanney trotted out his best possible starting 11 to send a statement, but it was also about giving his top players some extra game time to gel. While the Reds are still in pre-season mode, Tigres is in the middle of its domestic campaign in Mexico.

“If you have any desire to win this tournament, and you’re an MLS team, you need every minute you can to get your guys on the field and try to get in sync with each other, and try to get some experiences together that you can build on. … Tigres is already sharp and already have a lot of things worked out. We can’t rest guys right now,” Vanney explained

With a new coach and plenty of roster turnover in the off-season, the Rapids are a team in transition. Truth be told, they’re not much of a test for TFC; they’re exactly the kind of side Toronto should beat, although to its credit, Colorado did give the hosts a tough time of it. You can only play the team in front of you, and while the Reds easily dispatched the Rapids over the two legs, they can expect a far more difficult challenge against Tigres, one of the top teams from Mexico.

“We understand as we move forward in [the Champions League] that you have to play better because you come across better opponents. That’s understood,” Vanney stated.

While last week’s win in Denver featured a dominant performance from Toronto, this was a professional effort from the MLS Cup champs, more pragmatic than awe-inspiring. Colorado coach Anthony Hudson heralded his team’s effort, stating the Rapids were the better side for 50 or 60 minutes of Tuesday’s contest. Vanney was quick to remind his counterpart that this was a 180-minute series, and what matters is who was the better side over two games. You don’t get merit points.

“The problem is when you lose the first leg 2-0, you’re already losing, so I don’t know why it matters. At the end of the day, our job was to go through, and we did that,” Vanney said.

New Spanish playmaker Ager Aketxe started on the bench, but made his TFC debut when he came on as a substitute in the second half. Dutch fullback Gregory van der Wiel, another recent addition, was still on paternity leave – his wife gave birth on the weekend.

Toronto withstood some early pressure from Colorado, which successfully clogged the middle of the pitch, before carving out scoring opportunities via Sebastian Giovinco and Justin Morrow. Both had clean looks on goal from inside the penalty area, only to push their shots wide. It was the Rapids who came closest to scoring in the opening half, though, when Dominique Badji slipped in behind the defence and slammed his shot from the edge of the box off the post.

TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono was called into action after the restart, diving to his right to tip Enzo Martinez’ angled attempt out of danger. A knuckle-ball free kick from Giovinco forced Zac MacMath to make an unorthodox save.

MacMath came up big when he made a terrific stop late in the game to deny Toronto defender Drew Moor of a goal off a corner kick.

NOTES: Toronto FC now faces a short turnaround to get ready for the start of the MLS regular season. For the first time in franchise history, TFC will begin the MLS campaign at home when it hosts the Columbus Crew in its season opener on March 3. The Reds then enjoy a bye week, and they’ll travel to Montreal to take on the Impact on March 17 in Week 3. Back-to-back home games against Real Salt Lake and D.C. United follow their trip to Montreal.

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