TFC unable to overcome massive hurdle in Concacaf Champions League


Toronto FC midfielder Victor Vazquez (7) heads the ball as Club Atletico Independiente midfielder Manuel Torres (5) looks on during first half Concacaf Champions League soccer action. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

• Club Atletico Independiente 1 (Browne 67’), Toronto FC 1 (Hamilton 19’)
• TFC eliminated from Concacaf Champions League
• Reds kick off MLS season Saturday in Philadelphia

TORONTO – How times have changed for Toronto FC.

Last April, TFC was on the brink of becoming the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League, losing a penalty shootout heartbreaker to Mexico’s Chivas Guadalajara in the decisive second leg of the final. Nine months later, the Reds have been eliminated from the continental competition at the first hurdle.

TFC was held to a 1-1 draw by Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera on a frigid Tuesday night in the second leg of its round-of-16 series. As a result, the Reds bowed out of the competition, losing the two-match set against the modest Panamanian club 5-1 on aggregate.

Toronto entered this game with a major mountain to scale. A 4-0 loss in Panama in last week’s first leg meant the Reds had to win this return match by five goals in order to advance to the quarterfinals. While the Canadian outfit put forth a valiant effort and played with fighting spirit, coming back from four goals down proved to be simply too much for them.

“In terms of the series, ultimately, we put ourselves in a huge hole down [in Panama]. That was the big problem,” coach Greg Vanney said.

It was a sentiment echoed by TFC winger Nick DeLeon: “The effort was there… We can make excuses here and there, put this tournament in behind us. We weren’t good enough in the first leg.”

TFC striker Jozy Altidore sat out Tuesday’s game with the same minor knee problem that forced him to miss the first leg. Vanney decided to start youngsters Jordan Hamilton and Ayo Akinola up front, with Terrence Boyd on the bench (he started the first leg). DeLeon made his competitive debut for the Reds. Defender Drew Moor was on the bench, recovering from an injury that ruled him out in Panama.

Players from both teams were bundled up in long sleeves and track pants, gloves, toques and snoods for the pre-game warm-up. According to Environment Canada, the temperature at the 8:00 p.m. ET kickoff was minus-nine Celsius (minus-13 with the wind chill factor).

“It was probably the coldest game I’ve played in my life and I’ve grown up playing here,” admitted Hamilton, a 22-year-old native of Scarborough, Ont.

The pitch at BMO Field was in very rough shape, with large bare patches dotting the length of the field. The grass hadn’t fully come in yet, and the grounds crew compensated by sanding the pitch, which led to a heavy playing surface that adversely affected the bounce of the ball. It was as though both sides were playing in a giant sandbox. But it is February, so what can you reasonably expect in such wintery conditions?

That didn’t stop captain Michael Bradley from calling the state of the pitch of embarrassing.

“It’s a cold night, that part is what it is… The field is embarrassing. Nobody wants to talk about it anymore,” Bradley offered.

The bristling cold, and the Reds’ Herculean task of overturning a four-goal deficit, also kept away the TFC faithful, with only a few thousand fans bothering to show up at BMO Field.

If there were any positives for TFC to take away from Tuesday’s game, it was the play of Hamilton. The young Canadian has been consistently inconsistent during his time in Toronto, and it looked like he was on his way out of town when his contract expired at the end of last season.

But the club re-signed him to a new deal, and Hamilton repaid Vanney’s faith with a poised performance against Independiente, effectively leading the line and scoring the side’s lone goal.

“For me personally, when your contract expires with a club like this and you think about leaving and all the things you took for granted as a young player comes to mind and getting prepared to go somewhere else or stay here,” Hamilton said.

“Those are the things I told myself I wouldn’t take for granted anymore, which is playing at BMO Field and playing in front of my family. I think you guys saw the result of that tonight with me leaving it all on the field and that’s what I plan to do for the rest of my career here.”

TFC played the match at a fervent pace, dominating possession and dictating the pace of the match while laying siege upon Independiente’s penalty area. The visitors set out to defend their four-goal advantage by putting as many players as they could behind the ball, and tried to slow down the game at every opportunity with stall tactics.

Independiente goalkeeper Jose Guerra was kept busy in the first half, called upon to make a number of athletic saves. He couldn’t do anything on the opening goal, though, as Hamilton scored on a sublime header from the edge of the six-yard box off a cross from Justin Morrow.

Any hopes of a miraculous TFC comeback were dashed midway through the second half. Independiente forward Omar Browne capitalized on a disastrous headed clearance by Toronto defender Laurent Ciman, and then kept his composure by slotting the ball into an empty net after rounding goalkeeper Alex Bono.

NOTES: Toronto FC kicks off the 2019 MLS regular season on Saturday with a road game vs. the Philadelphia Union… Toronto has competed in five previous Champions League tournaments. This year marks Independiente’s Champions League debut…

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