Make no mistake, this was a long, long way from going toe to toe with some of the world’s soccer-playing heavyweights.
And Toronto FC’s BMO Field stadium is never going to be confused with Real Madrid’s famed Bernabeu, but Tim Leiweke is not one to be accused of failing to think big.
Leiweke, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., TFC’s owner, and the man who masterminded the capture of such stars as Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Julio Cesar, had previously gone on record as saying he can envision a day when a global super league will allow for regular matchups between the dominant clubs from each continent.
It’s a good thing he’s got time on his side on that front.
On Wednesday, that dream seemed light years away as TFC huffed and puffed its way to a 2-1 win against a spirited Vancouver Whitecaps squad that boasted an average age of just 21.6 in the first leg of the Amway Canadian Championship semi-final. Befitting a pair of players with 136 international caps to their name, Defoe and Bradley grabbed the goals for Toronto, with 19-year-old Kekuta Manneh converting a late marker for Vancouver in second-half stoppage time to add spice to next Wednesday’s second leg in Vancouver.
While the Canadian Championship has been much maligned by Toronto FC fans in the past, with a general feeling that the distractions and long commutes of the subsequent CONCACAF Champions League that await the Canadian champion have contributed to TFC’s failure to make the playoffs through its first seven seasons of existence, it does dangle an enticing carrot in front of Leiweke.
With a berth in the annual FIFA Club World Cup up for grabs for the winner of this region’s Champions League, a road that starts off in the Canadian Championship represents the sole chance for Leiweke to thrust his expensively assembled lineup onto the world stage, with potential matches against each continent’s champion club lying in wait. So if he wants TFC to contest anything more meaningful than a preseason friendly against soccer’s established order in the near future, he’ll simply have to hope his team can negotiate a long and winding journey, one that TFC memorably rode as far as the CONCACAF semi-final two years ago.
But before it starts getting ahead of itself and dreaming of the day it takes the field with the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona, it’ll have to have do a lot better in the return leg in Vancouver against the team managed by Toronto FC old boy Carl Robinson.
On the day that Cesar was officially named to the Brazilian World Cup squad, and was given the night off as a bonus, Toronto looked a long way from the worldly team that its signings have shown it aspires to be.
Vancouver goalkeeper Marco Carducci, with zero minutes of MLS experience under his belt, played much like the 17-year-old he is, but TFC failed to properly cash in against the youngster. Much as he did in Saturday’s loss to the New England Revolution, Gilberto obviously forgot to pack his shooting boots, though he did set up Defoe’s first-half goal, but he was far from the lone wayward marksman, as only four of TFC’s 14 shots were on target.
The visitors, with only two players at 25 years or older, showed they were not about to cow down from their more vaunted opponents, and after Bradley had put the game out of sight following a driving run from his own half in the 89th minute, Manneh gave Vancouver a lifeline going into next Wednesday’s second leg with a precise shot past Joe Bendik in the Toronto goal.