Toronto FC off to strong start in Champions League semifinal

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17). (Frank Gunn/CP)

• Club America 1 (Ibarguen 21′), Toronto FC 3 (Giovinco 9’, Altidore 44’, Morgan 58’)
• TFC close in on reaching CONCACAF Champions League final
• Reds can advance with a 1-goal loss in next week’s 2nd leg

TORONTO – It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Hometown product Ashtone Morgan, Toronto FC’s longest serving player, scored the goal that sealed a 3-1 win for the Reds over Mexican side Club America on Tuesday night in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal in front of 23,463 fans at BMO Field.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore also scored for TFC, which moved one step closer towards reaching the final, something only two other MLS teams have done since the inaugural Champions League tournament in 2008-09.

Toronto can advance to the final with a win, a draw or a one-goal loss in next week’s second leg at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca. A 2-1 victory on Tuesday night would have suited TFC fine. But Morgan’s goal gives the Reds a little bit more breathing room, as Club America needs to win the return match by at least two goals in order to move on.

The unassuming Morgan debuted for Toronto in 2010 when he was still a teenager and went on to become regular starter. He lived through more dark days at this club than any other player, suffered many injuries, and lost his place in the starting 11 as management has brought in high-priced talent over the years. Through it all, the Canadian has always carried himself with class and grace, putting his love for his city and team above his own ambitions. This was his moment, and it was well deserved.

“The third goal was a beautiful goal that started in transition, worked its way across the field and went all the way to the other side. Ash was one of the guys who started the transition and he was the guy who finished it,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said.

TFC was without defender Chris Mavinga (lower body) and midfielder Victor Vazquez (back). Fullback Justin Morrow, who has missed games in recent weeks with a calf problem, was an unused substitute on the bench. It says a lot about the depth and character of the MLS Cup champs that they beat Club America, one of the best teams in Mexico, minus three key starters who played massive roles in the Reds’ record-breaking 2017 campaign.

“You can’t win games, as we have over the last two years, just on talent. You need to have a great mentality. … You got to have a group who buys into [the game plan] and works for each other,” Vanney stated.

The first half was played out under a steady drizzle of rain, the foul weather a perfect match for the action on the pitch, which was chippy and ill-tempered at times. Referee Henry Bejarano issued three yellow cards for unsporting behaviour through the first 45 minutes, and was constantly being surrounded and hounded by protesting players.

The bad blood carried over into the tunnel at halftime as players made their way to their locker rooms. Club America coach Miguel Herrara accused two Toronto police officers of assaulting two of his players (goalkeeper Agustin Marchesín and defender Bruno Valdez), and assistant coach Giber Becerra, and claimed a CONCACAF official witnessed the altercations.

“Police should be there to separate players, not be aggressive and hit players,” Herrara said through a translator.

Vanney saw it completely different, refuting Herrara’s claims of assault by local police, and that tensions escalated when one of his assistants elbowed Jonathan Osorio in the face as the TFC midfielder tried to separate him and Giovinco. The Italian earned what Herrara felt was a dubious penalty decision that allowed Toronto to take an early lead.

“I was front and centre, and I saw everything. … Just in defence of the Toronto police, I’m going to disagree with him strongly because that’s not what happened,” Vanney stated.

Club America made life difficult for the hosts right from the opening kickoff, using its front five attacking players to press TFC high up the pitch. It was Toronto, though, who opened the scoring when Giovinco broke into the box and was taken down by defender Edson Alvarez. Giovinco missed a penalty in TFC’s last game, but the Italian made no mistake this time, drilling his attempt straight down the middle past Marchesin.

The Reds began to dictate the pace of the game before an Osorio giveaway led to a Club America break. Andres Ibarguen took full advantage of some very sloppy defending, dancing between Toronto captain Michael Bradley and Drew Moor on the edge of the penalty area before slotting it past goalkeeper Alex Bono. It was one of the best goals scored in recent memory at BMO Field.

Toronto looked to be in big trouble after that, committing silly mistakes and lacking composure as halftime drew near. But then Giovinco chipped a through ball for Altidore who rounded a Club America defender and fired a low drive by Marchesin.

Toronto padded its lead early in the second half with a gorgeous, free-flowing sequence that started in the defensive half of the field and ended with Brazilian Auro delivering a killer ball into the box, and Morgan hustling from a deep position to get on the end of it and poke it home.

“We broke out of [Club America’s] pressure, I switched the play and continued my run. I was lucky that Auro found me and I got to put it in,” Morgan said.

NOTES: TFC has a bye this week in MLS play. The team travels to Mexico on Thursday in order to acclimatize to the altitude and conditions ahead of next week’s return match at Estadio Azteca… The winner of this series meets the winner of the other semifinal between the New York Red Bulls and Mexican side Club Deportivo Guadalajara in the two-legged final later this month.

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