For Toronto FC, a draw wasn’t enough on Tuesday night to keep their hopes alive in the CONCACAF Champions League as they played to a 1-1 result against Real Salt Lake at BMO Field.
The Reds needed a win to have any chance of advancing to the quarter-final stage, however, the tie coupled with Cruz Azul’s 2-0 win over Arabe Unido officially eliminated Toronto from the competition. Both Salt Lake and Cruz Azul will move ahead from Group A to the next round of the Champions League.
The last time these two teams met, Toronto was embarrassed by Salt Lake losing 4-1 in Utah just two weeks ago. However, Coach Nick Dasovic came out with a different game plan for his team than what is normally employed by the Reds at home.
With the team playing so many games of late and battling fatigue, the goal was to frustrate Salt Lake with a defensive approach and create offence on the counterattack.
“I feel with all the games that we’ve had it’s started to pile up and it’s difficult," said Dasovic. "At home you want to play a pressing kind of attacking game but you’ve got to look after the boys’ legs because they’ve been travelling so much and playing games."
For the most part the strategy worked and even lead to great goal by midfielder Jacob Peterson in the first half. However, a defensive breakdown midway through the second half resulted in a free kick for Salt Lake and Javier Morales made no mistake from 20 yards out.
“We sat back a bit tonight and I think it worked because we got some joy in the counterattack, of course Jacob scored a great goal. Unfortunately, we gave up a silly free kick at the top of the box and to be fair they finished it greatly.”
Although neither team had many chances, it was Toronto that looked the most impressive in the first half. Toronto managed to hold off the defending MLS Cup Champions and limited their chances. On the flip side, the Reds were able to generate chances off the counterattack which also lead to the first goal of the match.
In the 20th minute, Jon Conway, who was playing in goal in place of Stefan Frei, corralled a Kyle Beckerman cross and immediately threw the ball up the field. The ball bounced passed a lunging Will Johnson of Salt Lake to Peterson who was open in the midfield. He then charged towards a defender before unleashing a left-footed strike past a diving Nick Rimando and into the far side of the net.
The goal, the first for Peterson as a member of TFC, wouldn’t have been possible without Conway’s great throw that found him all alone in the midfield.
“We work on that,” said Peterson. “We know Jon’s (Conway) got a great arm on him. A team like Salt Lake where they possess the ball so well, we knew on the counterattack we might get some joy and fortunately we did on that one…It’s definitely something we looked to exploit.”
For the most part, the game remained quiet until the 58th minute. Captain Dwayne De Rosario drilled a shot from over 20 yards out but was robbed by Rimando’s outstretched right hand at the post to keep the score 1-0.
In the 66th minute, TFC defender Maksim Usanov was called for needlessly knocking down Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley at the edge of the box. On the ensuing free kick, Beckerman faked a run towards the ball before jumping back and letting Morales take the spot kick. Morales curled the ball over the wall and despite Julian de Guzman’s best efforts to clear it off the line, the ball bounced off his arm and into the net.
Morales’s kick was perfectly placed and tied a match that otherwise looked to be in Toronto’s favour. Morales nearly didn’t play in the game and his inclusion in the lineup was a game-time decision. The Argentine hadn’t played in three weeks and came on as a substitute to start the second half.
“We brought him out here a couple of hours before the match, put him through a fitness test,” said Salt Lake Coach Jason Kreis. “He passed that and felt good, but we were just concerned with how many minutes he would last…we know how important Javier is for us so it was a gamble that paid off.”
Despite pressing forward in the dying minutes, Toronto was not able to capitalize for a go-ahead goal. In fact, Toronto nearly became a victim of the counterattack as they had numbers in the Salt Lake end of the field. Conway was forced to make a huge save in the 90th minute when he stopped Findley on a breakaway at the near side of the net.
Then in a bizarre clearing attempt in stoppage time, Conway, who was one-timing a kick from a throw-in, nearly scored on his own net. He was unable to hit the entire ball on his kick and fans gasped as it spun backwards and nearly went in the net. However, Conway recovered in time to keep the ball out.
Despite being eliminated from the competition, Toronto still has one more match to play in the Champions League when they host Arabe Unido on October 19th at BMO Field.