TORONTO — Trailing 4-0 on aggregate and playing in frigid conditions, Toronto FC’s hopes of a Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League comeback died Tuesday on a field that was a long way from adequate.
After making the final of the CONCACAF club championship last year, Toronto FC exited at the first hurdle after a 1-1 tie in the return leg of the round-of-16 tie with Panama’s Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera.
“We can make excuses here and there, but at the end of the day, this tournament’s behind us. We weren’t good enough in the first leg and we put ourselves in a big hole,” said Toronto winger Nick DeLeon, who missed the game in Panama due to a back injury.
“But we felt the mentality was definitely right in this game. It was just a little bit of quality lacking in the final third.”
Toronto now turns its attention on the MLS season, which it opens Saturday in Philadelphia.
Toronto outshot Independiente 25-6 (17-3 on target), had 66 per cent of the possession and a 9-2 edge in corners. But apart from a 19th-minute header goal by Jordan Hamilton, it could not beat goalkeeper Jose Guerra.
Omar Browne’s goal in the 67th minute sealed the deal, tying the game at 1-1 and meaning Toronto had to score six on the night to advance.
Last year, Toronto beat the Colorado Rapids and Mexico’s Tigres UANL and Club America to reach the tournament final only to lose in a penalty shootout to Chivas Guadalajara.
This year, it was a short and disappointing cameo in the competition.
Independiente will meet either Mexico’s Club Deportivo Toluca or Sporting Kansas City in the quarterfinals.
On the plus side for Toronto, star striker Jozy Altidore has agreed to a new long-term contract, according to a source, And the club has struck a deal with Belgium’s KRC Genk to bring in Spanish attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo in mid-March, according to another source.
Toronto needs the help. With Altidore still nursing an injury, TFC’s scattergun offence lacked a cutting edge Tuesday.
It was -10 Celsius — feeling like minus-16 with the wind chill, according to Environment Canada — at kickoff at a largely empty BMO Field. Down in Panama, it was a warm 28 C in La Chorrera.
The visitors looked to defend first, occasionally mounting a counter-attack. But their plan with a four-goal lead was clearly to get the ball away from their goal, often playing with a six-man backline when defending. Toronto was in near-constant attack.
Toronto thought a foul on Hamilton should have been awarded in the leadup to the Independiente goal. But none was given and, after two Toronto defenders failed to control a high ball, Browne raced in alone and beat Alex Bono.
Panama players dropped to their knees in celebration when the final whistle blew.
The opening leg was played on a warm evening in Panama on artificial turf at Estadio Agustin Sanchez. Romeesh Ivey had two goals and Abdiel Ayarza and Browne also scored.
The days leading up to the game in Toronto featured a wind warning, blowing snow advisory, extreme cold weather alert and finally a snowfall warning for Wednesday (significant snowfall of near 15 centimetres on tap).
Bear in mind that Ontario regulations don’t call for ice-fishing huts to be removed until various dates in March depending on location or ice breakup.
Two large heaters were aimed at the TFC bench. Independiente got one.
The new grass playing surface at BMO Field, installed in November, looked like a threadbare carpet that had been covered with a layer of sand. It made for an ugly, slow track.
“The only way anyone was scoring goals today was in the air,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney, referencing the poor pitch.
“The field is embarrassing,” added captain Michael Bradley. “Nobody wants to talk about it any more.
“We want to play. We want to step out onto the field in our stadium in front of our fans and have a field that you feel like you can play football on.”
In the groundskeepers’ defence, grass is not expected to flourish in February in Toronto. Plus the pitch is awaiting its next phase of improvement in April, when special machines stitch in hybrid roots to help strengthen the surface.
Prior to the game, Independiente tweeted a photo of players praying in a circle. “Today we go out to the field for our families, for our people, for Panama,” read the caption.
“It was a good game,” Independiente coach Fran Perlo said with a smile afterwards.
Toronto also hosted a round-of-16 game last year in late February, but it was a balmy nine degree Celsius for the visit by the Rapids.
Vanney made three changes to his starting lineup as DeLeon, Hamilton and Ayo Akinola came in for Griffin Dorsey, Terrence Boyd and Ashton Morgan. Hamilton and Akinola were chosen to five the team a more direct thrust up front.
Altidore is still returning to match fitness after ankle surgery while dealing with a separate knee irritation. With star striker Sebastian Giovinco and playmaker Victor Vazquez having left, the Toronto offence needs a spark.
Guerra was called on early, diving to parry a Hamilton shot in the sixth minute. But Hamilton beat him in the 19th minute, floating a header in off a Justin Morrow cross.
Morrow came close in the 25th minute but his shot hit the ‘keeper and was cleared by a defender before it rolled into the open goal. One wonders what might have happened if Toronto had gone up 2-0 then, with 65 minutes remaining.
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