Toronto FC impress in CONCACAF Champions League qualifier

Second-half substitute Joao Plata scored a pair of spectacular goals to lift TFC to a 2-1 win over visiting Real Esteli of Nicaragua Wednesday night in the opener of its CONCACAF Champions League qualifier.

Why can’t Toronto FC play like this all the time?

Second-half substitute Joao Plata scored a pair of spectacular goals to lift TFC to a 2-1 win over visiting Real Esteli of Nicaragua Wednesday night in the opener of its CONCACAF Champions League qualifier.

With the dominating victory, TFC now stands poised to move on to the group stage of the CONCACAF competition for a second consecutive year. The Major League Soccer club needs only a draw in the return leg scheduled for Aug. 2 in Nicaragua.

Real Esteli’s away goal means it can move on with a 1-0 win next week.

The winner of the home-and-away series advances to the first round of the Champions League and will compete in Group C with Mexico’s Pumas, Tauro of Panama, and either MLS side FC Dallas or Alianza of El Salvador.

"I’m convinced that we’re going to get to the group stage," said TFC coach Aron Winter.

If the Reds do qualify, it would be welcome relief for their loyal supporters who have had to endure another miserable season.

Sporting a lowly 3-11-9 record, Toronto sits in last place in the Eastern Conference, and with only 11 matches left in the MLS campaign it appears destined to miss out on the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Wednesday’s match was easily the Reds’ best outing of the year, albeit against a modest opponent, as they played stylish and composed soccer — for the most part. The lone blemish came when TFC goalkeeper Milos Kocic mishandled a harmless back-pass, leading to a Real Esteli goal in the 80th minute.

Winter was pleased with his team’s effort, but bemoaned a lack of sharpness in front of goal.

"If you saw in the first and second half the [scoring] opportunities we had, the [margin of victory] should have been more," said Winter.

Winter fielded an experimental starting lineup that included Kocic, who hadn’t played a single minute prior to Wednesday. Other surprise starters were defenders Doneil Henry and Ashton Morgan, and midfielder Matt Stinson — all of them young Canadians who have been used sparingly this season.

Curiously, Maicon Santos did not dress for Toronto. In his absence, German midfielder Torsten Frings wore the captain’s armband. Canadian Julian de Guzman, who hadn’t played since July 2 due to a knee injury, entered the game midway through the second half as a substitute.

Wednesday’s encounter was a classic battle of two contrasting styles: Toronto showed plenty of attacking initiative, while the visitors took a more conservative approach by using five players in defence and a lone striker.

The Reds’ trio of Gianluca Zavarise (another Canadian who has seen limited action), Danny Koevermans and Ryan Johnson caused plenty of early problems for Real Esteli’s defence with their effective link-up play. Johnson and Koevermans fed off Zavarise’s service, forcing goalkeeper Carlos Mendieta to make a string of saves in the first 10 minutes.

In the 35th minute, Nick Soolsma delivered a perfect cross into the box for Johnson, but the Jamaican’s powerful header was tipped over the crossbar.

Plata entered the game early in the second half for the injured Zavarise. TFC didn’t miss a beat, though, as the Ecuadorian live-wire expertly skipped past two defenders and slotted the ball home in the 56th minute.

Plata was at it again in the 72nd minute, striking a gorgeous free kick from 25 yards out into the top-left corner of the net. The Ecuadorian convinced Frings and Johnson to allow him to take the set piece as all three hovered over the ball.

"It was a little bit complicated because Torsten and Ryan were there and they wanted to take it, but I asked for it. They let me have it and thank God it went in," Plata said through an interpreter.

Rudel Calero took advantage of Kocic’s error with 10 minutes left in regulation to pull Real Esteli within a goal.

Immediately after the game Winter, assistant coach Bob de Klerk and starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei consoled Kocic on the field before heading back to the locker-room.

"You have to put your arm around him to say, ‘This happens, but that’s football.’ I still think he played well," said Winter.

NOTES: TFC has a busy 10 days ahead, with the return match in Nicaragua sandwiched between MLS road games against the Portland Timbers (July 30) and D.C. United (Aug. 6). The team’s next home game in MLS play is Aug. 13 vs. Real Salt Lake … The Reds’ all-time Champions League record is 4-4-3. They are also unbeaten in their last five home games in the competition … An announced crowd of 9,241 spectators watched the game at BMO Field.