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Toronto FC makes Champions League quest that much harder to complete

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Toronto FC’s 1-1 draw with Pumas UNAM may have taken place on Tuesday evening, but the seeds were planted last Saturday.  That was the day the Reds played their first choice Starting XI in an away league match against Chivas USA, a curious decision given that the club had the vastly more important CONCACAF Champions League date with Pumas in just three days’ time.

TFC lost that game, 3-0, to Chivas and the cross-country trip from Los Angeles combined with the short turn-around between games led to a depleted Reds side on Tuesday night.  It was all Toronto could do to hang onto that one point to just barely keep their CCL hopes alive.

Eight of the 11 players who started against Chivas comprised coach Aron Winter’s Starting XI against Pumas.  The major exceptions were the Cup-tied Eric Avila and team captain Torsten Frings, who was one of three Reds (Terry Dunfield and Mikael Yourasskowsky were the others) suspended for the match due to yellow card accumulation.

The result was a very thin midfield and bench for TFC against a Pumas side that laid a 4-0 beating on the Reds during the reverse fixture in Mexico City on Sept. 14.  Compared to that game, Toronto redeemed itself against its Mexican opponents.

“You looked at the way we played against Pumas, it was a completely different than how we played them in Mexico,” said striker Peri Marosevic.  “We came out strong in the first half, we wanted to make a statement and prove that we still want this, we want to be in CONCACAF and take it as far as we can go.”

It was Marosevic who put Toronto on the board with his strike in the 35th minute.  Forward Ryan Johnson got his head on a long ball into the box it fell to the feet of fellow striker Danny Koevermans.  Two defenders were closing on the Dutchman, who had his back to the net, but Koevermans saw Marosevic, unmarked, coming into the box.  Koevermans passed to Marosevic, who only had to roll the ball along the ground to find the back of the net and give TFC the lead.

Despite being down a goal, Pumas had been the more aggressive side on attack, so the probable strategy for TFC was to go into lockdown mode in the second half and do everything to hold that lead.  To that end, Winter took out Koevermans and inserted defender Doneil Henry into the game at halftime.

It was a risky move for the coach to take away his biggest offensive threat and, unfortunately for TFC, the move backfired just six minutes into the second half.  UNAM had a corner kick that went into the box and was directly headed into the net by defender Marco Palacios.

As has been so often the case for TFC defending setpieces this season, Palacios got free from his defender, in this case centre back Andy Iro.  Add the Pumas match to the lengthy number of games that Toronto has given away this season due to similar breakdowns.

“On set pieces we’re giving away goals and that’s most disappointing of all,” said midfielder Matt Stinson  “[It’s] not that we tied but we continue to give away goals that we shouldn’t.  They switched on for five or 10 seconds and we should be able to keep the zero if they don’t break us down.  It’s disappointing but we’re still trying to improve as a team.”

Now facing a tied score in a must-win game, the Reds found themselves with their top striker out of the match.  Winter admitted that “Danny was a little bit tired and I chose to bring in a 100 pe rcent fit player [in Henry],” but said he didn’t regret playing Koevermans for 84 minutes against Chivas.

TFC’s depth was further tested when fullback Richard Eckersley was forced out of the game in the 75th minute due to a leg injury.  Winter said that he wouldn’t know the extent of Eckersley’s knock until tomorrow, but the coach suspected it was a hamstring injury.

While the Reds were trying to get away with playing their regulars in both games, Pumas took the opposite tack.  UNAM was looking ahead to their Mexican Primera Division derby match against fellow Mexico City side Club America on Sunday, and thus of the 11 players who started against TFC on Sept. 14, only four made Tuesday’s lineup.

As the match progressed, however, Pumas began to bring in their reinforcements from the bench.  Javier Cortes and Emilio Orrantia came on at halftime to give UNAM a bit more scoring punch, while Martin Bravo (who scored a hat trick against TFC two weeks ago) came on in the 73rd minute.

Pumas outshot Toronto by a 16-8 margin and perhaps were unlucky to just draw given that two great chances found the post.  The first was a rifle of a shot from Diego De Buen that clanked off the upper corner of the net and stayed out.  The second came not from a Pumas player, but rather from Iro, who accidentally deflected a shot back towards his own net.  Only a few inches of post kept Iro from a catastrophic own goal.

The draw gives the Reds seven points through five matches in Group C action, one point behind first-place Pumas.  FC Dallas (seven points) and Tauro FC (two points) play in Panama City on Wednesday night.

By failing to win on Tuesday, the Reds have made their quest for the quarter-finals all the more difficult  If Pumas (as expected) beats Tauro on Oct. 19 in Mexico City, it will clinch a spot. If Dallas beats Tauro Wednesday, TFC, which already lost 1-0 at home to the Hoops, must go to Dallas and win — and score at least twice in doing so. If Dallas draws or loses to Tauro, then TFC must go to Dallas and win, no matter the scoreline.

“Obviously we still have a chance,” Marosevic said.  “We have to see what Dallas does against Tauro and that game does a lot to our chances….It would be great to have three points [tonight], it would’ve set us in a great situation but now we have to see what Dallas does against Tauro and hopefully Tauro can help us out a little bit.”

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