Daniel Girard | TheStar.com
For the most ardent Toronto FC supporters, tonight’s must-win game in Puerto Rico in the CONCACAF Champions League is being approached with a certain degree of been-there-done-that confidence.
After all, it was barely six weeks ago when TFC went into Montreal needing a victory by at least four goals to win the Canadian championship and advance to this preliminary stage of the competition against the best in North and Central America and the Caribbean. They emerged with a 6-1 win.
By comparison, the need to go into Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium to win the game while netting at least a pair of goals in order to advance to the group stage on aggregate, appears relatively modest.
Reality, of course, is much different. While the Montreal Impact were reeling, had recently changed coaches and rested players for an upcoming league game, the Puerto Rico Islanders are a team which sits near the top of the United Soccer Leagues First Division, thrives on its appearances in the Champions League and comes into its first home game in more than six weeks well rested.
«They play with a lot of confidence in Puerto Rico,» said TFC defender Marco Velez, a native son who played three seasons with the Islanders before joining Toronto last year. He described the stadium in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon as a «very difficult» place to play for the visitors because of the heat and the home side feeds off the boisterous crowd, which he said is typically about 9,000.
«They’re dangerous at home,» Velez said. «They’re a lot more dangerous than on the road.»
Losers of just one of 11 home games this year, (7-1-3), the Islanders played a tight defensive match last Wednesday in the opening leg in Toronto. Content to put every man deep in their own end, they capitalized on a scoring opportunity against the flow of the play in the second half to win 1-0.
Goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, who has eight shutouts in 21 league games this season, made some brilliant saves in the late stages of the match to make Kendall Jagdeosingh’s 67th minute strike the winner.
With the victory, the Islanders proved that their run to the semifinals of last year’s inaugural CONCACAF Champions League was no fluke. They’re now in control in this preliminary round.
«A lot of people are writing us off again and we sometimes thrive in that,» said TFC striker Danny Dichio, who came on as a late substitute on Wednesday and forced Gaudette to make a brilliant diving save on a header. «It’s going to be a very difficult place to go but I still think we’ve got a very good chance.»
TFC players will come in feeling good after earning a well-deserved point in a 1-1 tie in New England on Saturday when they were reduced to 10 men early in the second half as Chad Barrett was sent off.
TFC coach Chris Cummins said despite the «disappointing» loss to Puerto Rico last week, it’s important to go into tonight’s game with some perspective.
«At the end of the day, we’re one-nil down and it’s halftime,» Cummins said. «We definitely know we can go there and score goals but we’ve got to take a lot more responsibility in our defending.»
TFC PROBABLE STARTING XI
Frei; Garcia, Wynne, Brennan, Serioux; Robinson, Guevara, Vitti, De Rosario; Barrett, Gerba
TFC INJURIES: D Nana Attakora (hamstring), M Amado Guevara (ribs), D Adrian Serioux (knee), all questionable
• TFC comes in down 1-0 in the two-game, total goal preliminary round. If they win 1-0, the teams would then play a 30-minute overtime, followed by penalty kicks if the teams remain tied. If TFC were to win and score at least two goals, they would win on the strength of away goals.
• Puerto Rico has surrendered 10 goals in 11 home games.
• Islanders goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, who blanked TFC in Toronto last Wednesday, has a 0.86 goals against average and eight shutouts in 21 league games.
• TFC is hoping midfielder Amado Guevara, who has missed the last two games with a rib injury, will be ready to return to the lineup tonight.
• Dwayne De Rosario leads the team with a club-record eight league goals.