Having faced steeper odds and won, Reds calm before Leg 2
Native Puerto Rican Marco Velez played four seasons with the Islanders before TFC. (Giamou/Getty Images)
TORONTO — On June 18, Toronto FC faced a near-impossible task going into the final match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. The Reds needed to beat the Montreal Impact by no fewer than four goals or else the Vancouver Whitecaps would win the Canadian title and move on to the qualifying stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Given that TFC had only once scored as many as four goals in a single game, it seemed like a tall mountain for the Reds to climb. But climb it they did, as Toronto routed Montreal by a 6-1 score in order to win the club’s first trophy and make their first appearance in the Champions League tournament.
With this massive comeback already to their credit, TFC are very confident that they can overcome the smaller deficit they face as they head into the second game of their qualifying tie against the Puerto Rico Islanders. Thanks to a 1-0 defeat at BMO Field last Wednesday, the Reds need to win Tuesday’s match by at least two goals in order to win the tie, or can force overtime with a 1-0 victory.
«They’ll be loud and it’ll be a good environment. We’ve got to go out there like we did in Montreal, leave everything out there and try to score goals,» said defender Marco Velez last Thursday. «Hopefully we can pull it off and do it twice. Everybody’s going to lift their heads back up, first we have to take care of business on Saturday [against New England], and then go to Puerto Rico and do the same thing.»
TFC did indeed enjoy some success last Saturday and head to Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium with the momentum of a 1-1 road draw at New England. The Reds played the final 40 minutes with just 10 men due to Chad Barrett’s second booking of the match, and managed to salvage a draw with the Revolution in spite of this hindrance.
It was Barrett who noted last week that being down a goal to Puerto Rico might actually spur on Toronto FC. As in the Montreal match, TFC respond to the underdog role, whereas when they have a temporary edge (such as the club’s up-and-down ride in the MLS Eastern Conference table), the Reds don’t take full advantage.
«We’ve played better with our backs against the wall then we have when we’ve been on top,» Barrett said. «We’ve been on top of the league four times and haven’t capitalized. To go down there [to Puerto Rico], it’s going to be good weather. I think it’s very doable to score some goals against them.»
The result in New England snapped a two-game losing streak for TFC and helped erase some of the disappointment felt after their first encounter with the Islanders. Despite a 17-6 shot advantage, the Reds couldn’t manage to solve Puerto Rico’s defensive-minded formation, and the USL-1 club capitalized on one of its few chances to take the lead in the qualifying tie.
In his post-game press conference, TFC interim head coach Chris Cummins said that the loss was particularly galling since the Reds were very aware of Puerto Rico’s style, tactics and even many of their set plays due to advance scouting and the inside knowledge provided by Velez. The native Puerto Rican played four seasons with the Islanders, ranking second all-time in minutes for the club and playing alongside many current Islanders and head coach Colin Clarke.
Velez said that while advance knowledge is helpful, the Reds are better prepared now having actually faced the team on the pitch.
«I told them almost everything I know about them,» Velez said. «I told them about that free kick where they scored. Now we’ve seen what they’ve got and hopefully we can go over there and get a win.»
Velez has become TFC’s de facto information source about their Champions League opponents, and not just from a playing standpoint. He also has first-hand experience about what the Reds can expect from their first-ever trip to Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium, where the Islanders have lost just once this season in 10 United Soccer Leagues First Division games.
«It’s very difficult. They feed off the crowd,» Velez said. «It’s not a big crowd like here but they let us know they’re there. It’s hot and they play with a lot of confidence in Puerto Rico. Last year in CONCACAF they had big wins over Santos Laguna, [Marathon] and Alajuelense. So at home they’re a lot more dangerous than they are on the road.»
Tuesday’s match will also be Puerto Rico’s first home date since June 20. Due to travel costs and the island’s distance from the continental United States, their schedule is broken up into long stretches at home or on the road. The Islanders played nine matches away from Bayamon, capping off that exhausting trek with the win in Toronto.
«They’ve been on the road without three weeks straight without going home even for a rest,» Velez said. «They’re going to be excited to be back home. They don’t have a game on the weekend so they get to rest and regain the energy from that long road trip. They’re going to come out and give us a hard time, especially in their first home game in over a month.»
Velez’s idea of a perfect trip home would be to see Toronto FC win the game and advance to the group stage of the Champions League, and also to play a role in such a victory. The reserve defender and Puerto Rico national team captain hopes he is doing enough in training to earn some playing time in his native land.
«There’s going to be a lot of friends and family there to support me and to see the game,» Velez said. «It should be good.»
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com.