Home Global Game CONCACAF TFC dominates Real Esteli, but surrenders vital road goal

TFC dominates Real Esteli, but surrenders vital road goal

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Toronto FC dominated the first leg of its CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round tie with Real Esteli FC, but true to form, the Reds just couldn’t quite make it easy on themselves. TFC scored a 2-1 victory over Real but that goal from the visitors looms large heading into the away leg on Tuesday.

With Toronto carrying a comfortable 2-0 lead going into the 80th minute, Esteli enjoyed a rare incursion into TFC territory when substitute Alesandro Calero sent a deep ball to the right of the net. Reds goalkeeper Milos Kocic went to collect the ball but rolled right over it, leaving a still ball for Calero to casually pop into the open net.

“I went to pick it up like I’ve picked up a million balls like that,” Kocic said. “It was wet grass and then all of a sudden dry grass I was sliding on and the dry grass flipped me over the ball….It’s unacceptable, obviously. The mistake shouldn’t happen but that’s sport, what can I say?”

As Real heads back to Estadio Independencia, that away goal gives the 10-time Nicaraguan champions a potentially critical tiebreaker over TFC. Real can now win the overall tie with a 1-0 victory on Tuesday. Given that the Reds will be playing in Portland on Saturday and then making another long flight to Esteli for Tuesday, it’s not out of the question that a jet-lagged TFC could get shut out on the road.

Of course, this is focusing on the negative on a night where Toronto played as one-sided a match as it has all season. The Reds outshot Real 22-7 (9-3 in shots on goal) and controlled the pace of play for virtually the entire 90 minutes. While Kocic’s error was unfortunate, the real fault could lie with TFC’s attackers for not putting at least a couple more goals on the board.

The Reds found room down the sides, with forward Nick Soolsma in particular getting loose for a number of crosses and challenges on goal. Real’s defensive tactic, however, was simply to flood the box with eight men and smother any TFC player who tried to convert these crosses. It wasn’t a pretty strategy but it was an effective one for the visitors, who held Toronto scoreless through the first half.

In the 49th minute, however, Joao Plata proved to be TFC’s secret weapon. Brought into the game as a substitute for Gianluca Zavarise, it took Plata just seven minutes to crack the Real defense. From the left side, Plata evaded one defender to get into the goalkeeper’s box and then slid the ball just inside the left post past both another (sliding) defender and goalkeeper Carlos Mendieta.

Plata wasn’t finished there. TFC received a free kick after Matt Stinson was hauled down just outside of the box on a play that earned Real defender Francisco Lopez a yellow card. From 23 yards out, Plata curled a tremendous strike over the wall and into the upper left corner of the net to give Toronto a 2-0 lead.

It was Plata’s first brace in a Reds jersey, and it’s a tribute to the 19-year-old’s growing self-assuredness that he took the free kick in the first place.

“It was a little bit complicated because Torsten [Frings] and [Ryan] Johnson were there willing and ready to take it, but I asked for it since I had the confidence,” Plata said via an interpreter. “Thank God it went in.”

Plata now has five goals in all competitions this season, though he has seen his form dip in recent matches. TFC head coach Aron Winter has been vocal about wanting to not overwork the young forward at this early stage in his career, and to that end Winter kept Plata on the bench to begin the game.

“At his age, [he’ll have] the ups and downs and in the last weeks he was a little bit down,” Winter said. “The moment that he came on the pitch he reacted well, very well.”

Plata was just one of many young faces who saw action for TFC against Real. Stinson, Kocic and Ashtone Morgan made their first starts of the year while Zavarise and Doneil Henry also made rare appearances in the Starting XI.

Winter explained that while he was taking the CCL competition seriously, he also wanted to keep players fresh given that this was TFC’s third of six games in an 18-day span. Winter felt his young players would gain valuable experience and insight playing alongside veterans like Frings, who was wearing the captain’s armband in just his third game with Toronto.

While Winter noted that nothing has been made official in regards to the captaincy (which has usually gone to Stefan Frei or Maicon Santos this year), Frings acts like a captain whether or not he’s officially TFC’s field boss.

“I think that he could be a very good captain. To be a captain it’s not only because you are wearing an armband, but he is still a leader and you see that on the pitch,” Winter said. “I think that he doesn’t need it but the way he is playing and the way he is helping all the young players, you could see today on the pitch that he is a born leader.”

Winter himself provided some aid to a young player after the game. He, Frei and assistant coach Bob de Klerk immediately gathered around Kocic after the game in the wake of the ‘keeper’s gaffe.

“He was upset…he didn’t like it, it was his fault and he was a little bit down,” Winter said. “You have to speak with him, put an arm around him and say ‘this happened but it’s football. All those things happened but still you have played well.’ ”

It was a tough break for Kocic, especially given his scarcity of playing time. Frei was held out of the lineup due to a minor hand injury and a desire by the coaching staff to give Frei a break after the ‘keeper had played every minute of TFC football this season.

“It’s very nice when your coaches and teammates give you support because I’ve been working very hard the whole year and I’ve never done anything to disappoint anyone,” Kocic said. “Then today, this thing happens. I’d like to apologize to the fans and my team for the mistake…..I’m down right now but I will not be down tomorrow. I will keep my head up, work hard and make sure this does not happen next time.”

TFC will play in Nicaragua for the first time in the club’s brief history on Tuesday as the Reds try to advance to the CCL group stage for the second consecutive year. Real Esteli is trying to avoid their second ouster from the CCL preliminary round at the hands of a Canadian team — the Montreal Impact knocked Real out in 2008.

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