Welcome to the Champions League - CONCACAF style.
Unlike its more glamorous European counterpart, there's no Cristiano Ronaldo or Kaka to be found here - Toronto fans will have to wait until next Friday for a first-hand glimpse of the Real Madrid pair - and fanciful visions of away trips to the San Siro and Old Trafford will have to be replaced with the hardened reality of another prospective journey to Crew Stadium in Columbus, should Toronto FC qualify for the group stage.
However, that is looking a far tougher proposition after last night's 1-0 preliminary round home loss to United Soccer Leagues First Division side, the Puerto Rico Islanders, who claimed the all-important away goal in the process, leaving Toronto requiring a win in next Tuesday's return leg at Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, where the Islanders haven't lost a game in over two months.
"It's still in the balance and next Tuesday is going to be an interesting evening," said Puerto Rico coach Colin Clarke afterwards.
Still, though there will be a lot on the line, there aren't exactly European-style riches awaiting clubs that qualify for the group stage. While UEFA's best earned an average of €38.45million ($58.8-million Canadian) for making it to the knockout rounds, their CONCACAF counterparts have to settle for the gate receipts from three more home fixtures, plus the added kudos that comes from making it to the latter rounds.
The Puerto Rico Islanders know all about that, having made it as far as last season's semi-finals before bowing out to Mexico's Cruz Azul on penalties. They certainly played like a side that was well aware of the vagaries of playing a two-legged knockout competition last night, content to absorb the pressure of the home side, and in no hurry to get on the scoresheet.
Their patience was finally rewarded in the 67th minute on their sixth, and last, shot of the night. Jonathan Steele crossed from the right, Toronto goalkeeper Stefan Frei lunged for a ball he simply had to claim, but when he failed, Trinidad international Kendall Jagdeosingh was in the right place at the right time to fire the ball into the open net.
While the first half had been a largely forgettable affair, with just a Dwayne De Rosario header threatening the opposition goal, the second half saw the home side open the game up.
Sam Cronin and Ali Gerba both had fine opportunities to put the hosts in front within the first 16 minutes of the restart, only to conspire to miss the openings, with Gerba also having an effort ruled out for offside with 14 minutes remaining.
Puerto Rico goalkeeper William Gaudette was happy to play the villain throughout, whether he was denying the five out of 17 shots that Toronto actually put on goal, or simply employing his veteran's penchant for gamesmanship, which eventually saw him booked for time-wasting in the 79th minute.
Still, he was there when it counted, in particular for a diving header from substitute Danny Dichio in the 90th minute, pushing the ball around his right post when an equalizer had appeared in the offing.
"I was lucky to get the better of him this time ..." Gaudette said afterwards. "[The tie's]a long way from over."
NOTES The Puerto Rico Islanders finally get to go home. Last night's game was the United Soccer League team's ninth consecutive road game. ... Toronto FC defender Marco Velez, who played two seasons with his native Puerto Rico Islanders, didn't get off the bench during last night's game. ... TFC rookie Sam Cronin made his first appearance since getting back from the Gold Cup, where he made his first two appearance in international games for the United States, one of which was a substitute appearance in Sunday's 5-0 rout at the hands of Mexico in the final.
NEXT Saturday at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Paul AttfieldReport Typo/Error