Puerto Rico side’s tough defending puts Reds in difficult situation
Ali Gerba (left) and Toronto FC were hounded by the Islanders’ defense all night. (P. Giamou/Getty)
TORONTO — There was no mystery about what the Puerto Rico Islanders were going to bring to BMO Field in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League qualifying tie. Toronto FC interim head coach Chris Cummins predicted it earlier in the week; the tough-defending Islanders (with five shutouts in their previous six games) would make defending the priority in the away leg, and try to steal a goal whenever they had a chance.
The opposition’s predictable game plan made TFC’s 1-0 loss to Puerto Rico on Wednesday all the more frustrating for the coach. The Reds accumulated 17 shots, but couldn’t finish any of their chances. Meanwhile, the Islanders converted one of their rare opportunities in the second half to leave Toronto with a vital away goal.
«We said there would be three things in the game,» Cummins said. «Be aware of the counterattack, that’s how they play. I thought the young kid, [TFC defender Emmanuel] Gomez, went in there and was a different class. I thought he was the best player on the pitch. So we dealt with the counterattack. We also said they’d be doing set pieces … we even told them the set piece that they were going to do, and they scored off it. It’s criminal. The third thing we said was when you get your chances, you have to take your chances, and we haven’t done that.»
«So that’s three things in the game and we’ve done one of them, through a young kid. You can’t be at home and take that many chances … I think [our] ‘keeper had one save to make. It’s just disappointing.»
In the 67th minute, the Islanders were awarded a free kick, and the result was a high pass to striker Kendall Jagdeosingh on the right side of the net. Toronto goalkeeper Stefan Frei went to the edge of his box to try and intercept the cross, but Jagdeosingh got to the ball first, blocked Frei out and then turned and fired the ball into the net.
It was a particularly deflating concession for Toronto given that the Reds had mostly dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
«I didn’t have anything to do all game,» said Frei, who faced just one other shot on goal in the match. «We played well, unfortunately that one thing I had to do, they scored. They had one chance and they capitalized on it.»
Cummins said that the Reds didn’t move the ball quickly enough against the midfield-packing Islanders, particularly in the first half. Once fullbacks Jim Brennan and Marvell Wynne moved further downfield in the second half, things really opened up for TFC. Twelve of Toronto’s 17 shots came in the latter 45 minutes, but it was to no avail.
«It kind of reminded me of a high school game,» said forward Chad Barrett. «It was just constant shooting and they packed the box. Their ‘keeper made some really good saves and kept them in the game. They have a couple of big, 6-foot guys in the middle, we’re trying to stick crosses in, so there’s some problems there.»
The Reds have an important league game in New England on Saturday, and then travel to Puerto Rico for the final leg of their qualifying series on Tuesday against the rested Islanders. Toronto can win the tie by winning by at least a two-goal margin on Tuesday, or they can force extra time and maybe a penalty shootout by getting a 1-0 victory and tying the overall balance at 1-1.
Any other result, however, will end TFC’s first CONCACAF Champions League run in the qualifying stages.
«We don’t make things easy, do we?» Cummins said. «You shouldn’t have to go somewhere and score three, four or five goals because you don’t do your job at home. And we said it was key that we didn’t concede.»
It will be the second time this season (and the second time on their overall path to the Champions League) that Toronto FC will be facing a dire situation on the road. The Reds needed at least a four-goal win in Montreal on June 18 just to advance to this qualifier by winning the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, and TFC did just that, shocking the Impact with a 6-1 rout.
Now, Toronto will be facing another United Soccer Leagues First Division side on their home pitch. This Islanders side, however, will be at full strength, unlike the substitute-filled lineup that Montreal fielded since they were already eliminated from a chance at the Voyageurs Cup. Plus, Puerto Rico has the experience advantage of having advanced to the semifinals of last year’s Champions League.
TFC midfielder Sam Cronin feels that the first-hand experience of playing Puerto Rico, rather than just watching them on film and knowing of their game plan, will benefit Toronto in the second leg.
«It’s not a good start to the series. It’s important to remember that we have another chance to go down there and make it right,» Cronin said. «It’s not the end of the world as long as we learn our lessons. I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of the game. We created a lot of opportunities and it’s on us to finish them.»
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com.