TORONTO – How does a team rebound from one of the worst performances in franchise history?
That’s the question facing Toronto FC ahead of next Tuesday’s Concacaf Champions League game at BMO Field.
TFC was embarrassed by Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera in the first leg of their round-of-16- series, dropping a 4-0 decision in Panama this past Tuesday. That shocking result puts the Reds in a massive hole, as they have to win by at least five goals – five! – in the return match in order to advance to the quarterfinals.
How times change. Last April, Toronto was on the brink of becoming the first MLS team to ever win the 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 find themselves on the cusp of being eliminated from the continental competition at the first hurdle.
How did the Reds get to this point? Coach Greg Vanney blames a fundamental lack of intensity in Tuesday’s 4-0 humbling at the hands of Independiente, and warns that the entire team has to raise its level for the second leg.
“We didn’t arrive in the game with enough intensity, with enough competitive emotion. That’s first and foremost. We met today and everybody raised their hand and said that wasn’t good enough,” Vanney told reporters after Friday’s practice.
“There’s no sense in [making] excuses. It has to be better. When [the intensity is] not there then you can pick a lot of things apart from the tactical side, and some of the decisions being made.”
Vanney deflected when asked to explain why TFC lacked the necessary competitive fire in the first leg in Panama.
“Anything I say, it’s going to sound like an excuse. I’ll say that we weren’t prepared with the right mindset. I think maybe we thought the game was going to be easier. … From a competitive, fighting standpoint, we didn’t reach it,” Vanney offered.
Goalkeeper Alex Bono, in net for all four goals in Panama, admitted the team’s mentality and the effort it put into the game was unacceptable. At the same time, Bono, who said the team’s preparation for the game wasn’t an issue, was at a loss to explain TFC’s poor mindset in Panama.
“I can’t really explain it. What I can say is that before the game the mood, for me, felt right [and] it seemed right. We go down with an early goal, and we never recovered from there,” Bono said.
Despite a daunting, four-goal gap to overcome, Vanney isn’t throwing in the towel and said he has a lot of optimism about the team’s new 4-3-3 system going forward. He also feels TFC didn’t recognize and take advantage of the spaces his team opened up in its attacking play in the first leg. Dealing with Independiente’s quickness on the counter-attack and its transition game is something the Reds have to be better at in the return match.
“I still think we can turn this around. I think it’s going to take some real execution of things, but as I watch [the first leg] the things that set up for us on the attacking side we should be able to create enough opportunities. The question is can we can take advantage of those opportunities and can we make sure that we keep their transition attack under control,” Vanney explained.
Bono added: “By no means are we out of this. We have to believe we can go into this next week and really make a comeback for the ages.”
TFC was without Jozy Altidore (ankle), winger Nick DeLeon (back), and defenders Drew Moor (leg) and Eriq Zavaleta (quad) for the first leg in Panama.
Moor practised with his teammates on Friday, while DeLeon and Zavaleta worked out on their own. Altidore did not participate in training and isn’t likely to play next Tuesday. Moor is expected to see some minutes versus Independiente, while DeLeon and Zavaleta could also play.
Forward Terrence Boyd played in Altidore’s absence in the first leg, serving as the attacking reference point in Vanney’s 4-3-3 formation. But like most of his teammates on the night, Boyd failed to impress against Independiente. The newcomer failed to convert a penalty at the half-hour mark, ballooning his shot high over the crossbar. Had he scored, Toronto would have gone into the halftime break tied at 1-1.
A day after the game, Boyd shouldered the responsibility for the loss, posting on his Twitter account, “no excuses for my bad [penalty] & performance. this loss is on me. will keep working.”
Vanney appreciated Boyd’s sentiment and intentions, but insists the team’s overall performance had nothing to do with his new forward.
“He understands that, and I made sure that he understands that,” Vanney said.
The winner of this series meets either Mexican side Club Deportivo Toluca or Sporting Kansas City in the quarterfinals. KC beat Toluca 3-0 at home in the first leg of their round-of-16 series.
TFC begins the MLS regular season with a road game against the Philadelphia Union on March 2.