In the end, the best team in Liga MX was a class above Chris Armas’ Reds.
Toronto FC could not find the miracle comeback, falling 1-0 to Cruz Azul—4-1 on aggregate—ending their CONCACAF Champion’s League campaign.
Coming into the second leg, Toronto FC had found themselves once again in no man’s land. Strategically, their high-press had proven premature and somewhat stagnant against Cruz Azul, and in terms of starters, the lack of a complete phalanx has led to an unevenness in execution. Worst of all, the diffident defence has been a stinging reminder of TFC’s seemingly unconquerable weakness over many seasons.
Thus, expectations were commensurately subdued on Tuesday night. Many reasoned (quite soberly) that little was to be expected—this match or last—from a team just starting to find their feet, especially against the best Mexican team playing. No manner of hopeful axioms would be enough to satiate that doubt, especially considering the 3-1 aggregate deficit. Simply, Toronto FC would have to perform extraordinarily to defeat the El Azul and advance.
— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) May 4, 2021
From the first touch of the ball TFC was playing with a palpable mania. They were pushing and passing furiously, though not necessarily cleanly—many balls were anxiously made and resulted in nothing. Their chromatic opponents, the Blues, were quick in endeavouring to match their pace; as they did, it was clear that Cruz Azul still held the advantage on individual skill, but Toronto—seemingly aware of this—was intent on making ceremonies chaotic.
The game was very back and forth in the opening quarter, with Cruz Azul trying to establish their usual system while TFC rushed at them, keen to slow their progress. When the Mexican side would attack they were able to create opportunities with the expected polish, but ultimately found nothing; critically for Toronto, these early attempts revealed a still-shaky defence—one example in particular saw a Blues’ striker find a breakaway, only to have Chris Mavinga chase him down and spare the Reds an early disadvantage.
Chris Mavinga not missing a beat in first match back
— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) May 5, 2021
It was all the more more devastating, then, when in the 27th minute the disadvantage found Toronto anyway.
In a moment of exquisite touch and awareness, last game’s executioner Brayan Angulo turned a bouncing pass into a blistering midair volley that roared over Bono’s reaching fingers and into the back of the net.
27’ CAZ 1 – 0 TOR
Bono caught off his line by the of a shot!pic.twitter.com/R6YnqnL7oP
— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) May 5, 2021
The weight of that goal was felt immediately. With the aggregate now at 4-1, Toronto’s chances of advancement became increasingly dismal. The Reds’ players appeared to resume their push, but a tangible lead had settled into their boots; Cruz Azul in turn looked much more relaxed with the shifted flow of the game.
The rest of the half was a malaise. Although Toronto were often able to find passage into Cruz Azul’s box, the lack of, perhaps, delusional hope quickly illuminated that very few of Toronto’s crosses were finding attackers in legitimately dangerous positions. The Blues under pressure maintained a sound elastic form, while Toronto’s defence would often clump together in their box to greet intruders.
However, in the first 45 it was not the defence that allowed a goal, but rather a singular player in Angulo who changed things around by his own volition. Going into the locker room, it was clear that—without Alejandro Pozeulo—TFC were going to need someone to step up and spark even the tiniest amount of inspiration.
— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) May 5, 2021
Toronto FC opened up the second half with notably more patience in their step, but also notable reservation—with their lost frenzy had also gone the dynamic core of their drive. This suited Cruz Azul perfectly, as it allowed them to calmly set up their offence and bounce the ball back and forth, looking for openings.
Interestingly, the change in Toronto’s manner allowed a visual exegesis of their strategy: the manic, in-your-face style that marked Toronto’s first half transformed a lot of the players into interchangeable parts with positions generally underpinning those movements. In the second half, while returning to more deliberate roles because of fatigue, it was clear that the Reds had no real tactic for pulling themselves up against better opponents: Michael Bradley was looking drained in the middle of the park; Jonathan Osorio was struggling to find that pivotal water-in-concrete positioning he occupies when at his best; the wingers like Jacob Shaffelburg were hustling, running, fighting, but finding nothing. Across the board Toronto FC looked exhausted and uncertain.
By the 65th minute Cruz Azul was on cruise control. Without any need to hammer the TFC box, they were content to rebuff Toronto’s attempts and simply prod at their opponents, occasionally making a run and taking a swing. The final 25 minutes coasted to a close in anticlimactic fashion.
In the end, there were no miraculous comebacks or flaming chariots emerging from the football firmament for Toronto FC. It was simply a better side in Cruz Azul playing a better game and achieving a deserved victory.
However, that all leaves the usual questions about Toronto FC. Many will say they performed poorly and it’s all a shambles to be lit on fire and cast into the wind. Others will say that, despite differences in skill, the fact that the series was lost largely on pivotal moments against a better squad means that the Reds are in better shape than the scorecards indicate. Ultimately, the truth is somewhere in between.
Cruz Azul is a very good team that may have, at times, underperformed—this, if anything, speaks to the effectiveness of the high-press when it is working in even partial capacity. But what got the job done against Club León did not work against Azul’s much sounder fundamentals. It was always going to be difficult for the Reds to compete headlong against such an opponent. However, injuries and a completely new style should not be discounted either; that being said, nor should the Reds’ often flimsy defence, which was the greatest contributor to the lost series.
While it would be nice to simply state that the future is bright, or some other such saccharine slogan, the truth is much more workmanlike. Toronto FC is shaping into a team that will get in precisely what they get out. If the press is what they want, it needs to be less coltish and more focused. If the defence is to improve, they do so on a basic level that allows them poise and trust in one another—Kemar Lawrence, if he comes to fruition, should help. If the offence is to find it’s fangs again, simply, it needs Alejandro Pozuelo back; and, of course, one can only hope that Yeferson Soteldo brings some panache of his own.
But all of this hinges on a single core ideal, one we saw in practice against Club León. Toronto FC can no longer expect miracles moments to form from the ether. Rather, the once-vaunted Reds will need to pour the entirety of their effort into building an identity forged around believing that no matter how disadvantaged, they can win with enough effort. While completely realistic to not expect such a result down three goals against a team like Cruz Azul, there is something to be said about fighting to the bitter end; it is, in fact, why any of us love Toronto FC in the first place.
The season is still early for TFC, and it is the sincere hope of all Reds faithful that, with enough fine tuning, the high-press style is indeed a winning style.