Toronto FC coach Chris Armas knew there was not a lot of room for error against Mexican league leader Cruz Azul, a team in season and on a roll.
But mistakes costs his MLS side dearly in a 3-1 loss Tuesday evening in the first leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.
Toronto was vulnerable on set pieces, not for the first time this young season, with goals coming off both a corner and free kick. The other followed a TFC turnover.
“Of course [Cruz Azul] is a good team but we let ourselves down, defending our [penalty] box again,” said Armas.
“Clearly we have work to do there and it cost us tonight,” he added. “And you can talk about the other games too where we let ourselves down. It’ll be hard to win soccer games when that stuff’s not right. I will figure that out.”
The result means TFC will have to score at least three goals and restrict the Cruz Azul attack next Tuesday in the second leg at Mexico City’s famed Azteca Stadium.
“The second leg’s going to be a tall task to turn it around,” conceded veteran fullback Justin Morrow. “They’re a really good team. You can tell they’re far into their season. They were really sharp on the day. We’ll expect more of that next week. We’re going to go there and give our best.”
The series winner will face either MLS champion Columbus or Mexico’s Monterrey in the semi-final of CONCACAF’s flagship club competition.
Bryan Angulo had two goals and Pablo Aguilar, a big presence at centre back alongside Juan Escobar, also scored for Cruz Azul. Jonathan Osorio replied for Toronto, which moved the ball around but did not manufacture many chances.
The Mexican side outshot Toronto 18-5 (10-3 in shots) on target.
“There were no secrets tonight. They’re a good team. They can play They have not lost much in this last year,” Armas said of Cruz Azul. “So we knew it would be tough. Not a lot room for error.”
Cruz Azul came into the match atop the Liga MX standings at 13-2-1 and unbeaten in 16 games (14-0-2) in all competitions. Toronto, in contrast, collected just one point from its first two games of the MLS season, losing 4-2 to CF Montreal and tying Vancouver 2-2.
The game was played behind closed doors at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, home to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 65,000-capacity venue hosted WrestleMania 37 on April 10-11.
It was 25 degree Celsius for the 10 p.m. ET kickoff.
Ecuador’s Angulo stunned Toronto in the third minute, curling a superb right-footed shot from just outside the penalty box into the far corner past Alex Bono. The play started with a Jozy Altidore giveaway just inside the Cruz Azul half with the burly forward almost making it back in time to win the ball back.
Osorio pulled Toronto even in the 20th minute, showing a nice turn of speed to beat Cruz Azul defender Ignacio Rivero to the ball and send a low cross into a crowded penalty box. The ball bounced off two Cruz Azul defenders before falling to Osorio, who tucked it in underneath 40-year-old Mexican international goalkeeper Jesus Corona.
It was the Canadian midfielder’s fifth Champions League goal, moving him past Sebastian Giovinco into sole possessions of second place behind Ryan Johnson (six) in the club record book.
The Mexican side appeared to have gone ahead two minutes later on a free kick when an off-balance Escobar scored on a fine header. But the goal was called back for offside upon video review, newly introduced to the competition.
Video review saved Toronto again six minutes later when referee Ricardo Montero, after checking the pitchside monitor, decided there was no handball after Rafael Baca’s shot hit Osorio from close range. Osorio seemed more concerned about protecting his body from the shot than getting an arm to it.
But the Mexicans kept coming and Angulo made it 2-1 in the 34th minute off an Orbelin Pineda corner, with an unmarked Aguilar headed the ball on to the far post where Angulo beat Morrow to knock it in.
Another set piece letdown led to a third Cruz Azul with the powerful Aguilar rising above Michael Bradley to head in a Pineda free kick in the 58th minute to make it 3-1.
And while Toronto’s starting 11 was bolstered by the return of Altidore, Osorio and Morrow, the club is still missing some key pieces in Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo (thigh) and French defender Chris Mavinga (calf).
Fullback Richie Laryea was also missing, suspended for yellow card accumulation.
On a positive note, Armas said there was a chance that new signing Yeferson Soteldo could see some action next week. The Venezuelan international winger is billed as a difference-maker.
Toronto dispatched defending Liga MX champion Mexico’s Club Leon 3-2 on aggregate in the round of 16, tying 1-1 in Leon and then winning 2-1 in Florida despite an injury-riddled roster.
Cruz Azul downed Arcahaie FC 8-0 on aggregate in its round-of-16 tie, bouncing back from a scoreless first leg to thump the Haitian side in the rematch at Azteca.
TFC was one of three Toronto teams playing in the area Tuesday evening. The Raptors lost 116-103 to the Brooklyn Nets at Tampa’s Amalie Arena while the Blue Jays defeated the Washington Nationals 9-5 at nearby TD Ballpark in Dunedin.
The Canadian teams have set up shop in the Sunshine State due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Tuesday marked the third time the teams have met in Champions League play, with the first two times in group play in 2010-11. TFC won 2-1 at BMO Field and the teams tied 0-0 in Mexico City.