A pair of “presence of mind” plays has put Toronto FC in a strong position to advance in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Toronto is 90 minutes away from reaching the final four of the continental competition for only the second time in franchise history after earning a 2-1 win against Mexican side Tigres in last week’s opening leg of its quarter-final series at BMO Field.
The Reds’ three designated players featured prominently in the victory. Captain Michael Bradley bossed the midfield with his tireless running, Jozy Altidore scored the tying goal, and fellow forward Sebastian Giovinco set up the winner.
But it was moments of sublime skill and awareness from a pair of young midfielders, Canadian Jonathan Osorio (25) and Marky Delgado (22), that proved to be the difference on the night for Toronto.
If the first leg was any indication, both Osorio and Delgado could be the difference again on Tuesday night when TFC faces Tigres in the return match in Monterrey.
Tigres stunned the crowd at BMO Field into silence when Chilean international Eduardo Vargas opened the scoring in the 52nd minute. Instead of buckling under the pressure after going down, Toronto reasserted itself and wrestled control of the game from its Mexican opponents just eight minutes later when Altidore levelled the score.
Altidore took his chance with aplomb, fighting off a Tigres defender insider the box before finishing with a low shot that beat goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman. It was Delgado’s gorgeous, perfectly executed one-touch pass, though, that unlocked the Mexicans’ defence and sent Altidore in on goal.
The quality of Delgado’s pass was of the highest quality. What didn’t get nearly enough recognition was his positioning in the middle of the pitch, and how he remained patient as the play unfolded down the left flank.
“Tigres had over rotated so many guys over to the other side that Marky was pretty open. … When Seba played the ball across the field, the one [Tigres] player who had to step up to Marky was a centre back. That opened up a space for Jozy, who was very clever to recognize that if he could seal off that defender from recovering to the ball side he could get himself on the turn and hit a shot,” TFC coach Greg Vanney explained.
Vanney has preached to his players the importance of keeping the ball moving. He doesn’t want anybody dawdling when in possession. It’s a message that has sunk in with Delgado, as evidenced by his brilliant pass to set up Altidore.
“We’ve seen Marky do this through the course of the game, and it’s one of the reasons why he advanced last year and played as many minutes as he did. His ability to play the right amount of touches and to be efficient when getting the ball, and he organized himself early so he could see forward. When he saw that centre back come out, it was just a one-touch pass into the gap that the centre back left open,” Vanney explained.
“A great setup by Marky where he positioned himself, and an even better awareness of who was closing him and where they were coming from to get the ball into that spot.”
Osorio’s deft, back-heeled goal in the 89th minute was shades of Alessandro Del Piero’s iconic goal for Juventus against Borussia Dortmund in the 1997 UEFA Champions League final. It took a lot of confidence and cheek to pull off a play like that in such a high-stakes match against an opponent the calibre of the reigning Mexican league champions.
The pass from Giovinco was a little behind Osorio, but the Canadian managed to quickly adjust his footing and flick the ball past a stunned Guzman in the Tigres goal.
“It was the third phase [of attack] from a corner kick. As Oso has been lately, [he] was very aggressive around the goal. We were able to keep the ball in that area, and get it back out wide, and create a second and third chance. On the third one, Oso was in there and Seba rolled the ball back,” Vanney recalled.
“Oso’s body positioning meant that if he was going to put it on goal he was going to have to do something that, a back-heel or a wraparound type of thing. It was clever skill. I think it caught the ‘keeper by surprise because the ball didn’t go far away from him, it went under him. I don’t think he was expecting it to come off that way.”
The scenario vs. Tigres
Toronto can advance to the semifinals with a win or draw on Tuesday night. The Mexicans would move on to the next round with a 1-0 win.
Don’t expect TFC to be cautious in its approach in Mexico, or Vanney to set his team up in a manner to play for the draw.
“We’re going there to play. We’re going there to be aggressive. We’re going there to not be afraid, to not sit back. That’s not who we are, that’s not what we want to do, that’s not what gives us the best chance,” captain Michael Bradley stated.
“We’re going to be smart, we’re going to be mindful of the position we’re in. But we’re going there to give it a real go, and make sure that they understand from the beginning the game is not going to be played on their terms the whole time.”
The winner of the TFC-Tigres series will meet the winner of Club America (Mexico) versus Tauro (Panama) in the semifinals. Club America won the opening leg of its quarter-final, 4-0 at home.