Toronto FC downs Mexico's Cruz Azul
Saric sets tone with early goal in CONCACAF Champions League debut
Who said Toronto FC shouldn’t take the CONCACAF Champions League seriously?
Toronto let its intentions be known early in its Champions League debut when midfielder Martin Saric scored in the third minute, pacing TFC to a 2-1 victory over Mexico's Cruz Azul Tuesday night at BMO Field.
Toronto's other goal came courtesy of Mista, the Spanish striker's first for the Reds since signing with the Major League Soccer club last month.
TFC leads Group A of the CONCACAF tournament with three points. Real Salt Lake and Panama's Deportivo Arabe Unido, the other teams in the group, meet Wednesday night in Utah.
What's at stake?
The CONCACAF Champions League is a 16-team competition featuring the best clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Toronto FC is in a first-round group with reigning MLS champions Real Salt Lake, Panamanian side Deportivo Arabe Unido and Mexico's Cruz Azul. TFC will play all three teams home and away for a total of six games.
The top two teams in each of the four round-robin groups move on to the quarter-finals. The quarter-finals, semifinals and final are contested over two legs.
The eventual winner of the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League advances to the 2011 FIFA World Club Cup, which is contested between the champions from all six continental soccer confederations.
FC Barcelona defeated Argentina's Estudiantes de la Plata in the final of last year's FIFA World Club Cup final. Mexico's Atlante finished fourth after winning the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League.
Toronto was all over Cruz Azul from the opening kick-off.
"We were ready to go, we were ready to compete, we were ready to press them," TFC coach Preki said of his team's quick start.
"That was the game-plan — to press them and make them kick long balls because we knew that they’re not the biggest team in the world and we can deal with the long balls out of the back."
As the reigning Canadian champions, TFC is eager to make its mark in the Champions League and equal the success of the Montreal Impact, who reached the quarter-finals two years ago.
A prevailing school of thought has been that Toronto can’t balance its MLS commitments with playing in the Champions League, and that it should not let this competition deter from what should be its first priority — making Major League Soccer’s playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
But winning the Canadian club championship comes with the responsibility of serving as Canada’s sole representative in CONCACAF’s showcase event. It's a responsibility that TFC, currently clinging to the eighth and final MLS playoff berth, takes seriously as evidenced by Tuesday’s performance.
Cruz Azul is one of the best teams in Mexico, and they finished runners-up in this competition the past two years. But their reputation didn't impress the Reds one bit — Toronto dictated the pace of the game and asked serious questions of the Mexicans' defence throughout.
Toronto took the early lead after some sloppy defending by the Mexicans inside their penalty area allowed Saric to score on a header from three yards out.
Mista padded Toronto's advantage just before halftime, firing a shot from the edge of the box that went just beyond the reach of goalkeeper Yosgart Gutierrez and nestled inside the far post.
Toronto carved out a hatful of scoring chances in the second half, before Cruz Azul notched a late goal. Christian Gimenez converted on a free kick from 20 yards out in the 90th minute, but it was a case of too little, too late for the Mexicans.
With forwards Maicon Santos (knee) and Chad Barrett (hamstring) sidelined with injuries, coach Preki started sophomore striker O'Brian White and Mista up front.
Saric returned to the starting lineup after a lengthy absence due to a leg injury. With No. 1 goalkeeper Stefan Frei given the night off, backup Jon Conway earned a rare start.
Tuesday’s victory gives TFC a boost in confidence ahead of their second Champions League match, on Aug. 24 in Panama versus Deportivo Arabe Unido.
"It's always important to get your points at home because you can see that nothing comes easy on the road and every game on the road is going to be difficult," Preki said.
Toronto returns to MLS action on Saturday when it hosts French star Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 1 p.m. ET).