Soccer

Toronto gets leg up in Champions League set

Toronto FC is 90 minutes away from rubbing shoulders with the elite in North American club soccer following a 1-0 win over visiting Club Deportivo Motagua on Tuesday night at BMO Field.

Dare to dream. 

Toronto FC is 90 minutes away from rubbing shoulders with the elite in North American club soccer following a 1-0 win over visiting Club Deportivo Motagua on Tuesday night in front of 18,891 fans at BMO Field. 

Chad Barrett’s first-half goal stood up in a victory that puts TFC in firm control of its fate in this two-game CONCACAF Champions League qualifier. Toronto visits Motagua for the return leg next Tuesday in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, needing only a tie to qualify for the Champions League. 

What’s at stake?

The winner of this home-and-away series advances to the group stage of the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League, a 16-team competition featuring the best clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Should TFC qualify for the tournament, it would be placed into a first-round group with reigning MLS champions Real Salt Lake, Panamanian side Arabe Unido, and the winner of a qualifier between Mexico’s Cruz Azul and San Francisco of Panama.

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 2010-11 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.

A Toronto loss by two goals or more in Honduras would eliminate the club from contention. But the Reds have to feel good about their prospects ahead of their trip to one of the hotbeds of Central American soccer after comfortably containing Motagua and keeping them off the scoreboard. 

However, Toronto coach Preki tempered his excitement over the result, bemoaning his team’s inability to capitalize on the plethora of scoring chances it created against the Hondurans.

"We’re happy that we didn’t give away a goal, but obviously we’re disappointed we didn’t score a second one," Preki admitted. "The goals are coming really hard for us right now. We’re creating the chances but the goals are not coming so easily."

Qualification for the Champions League would mark a major milestone for the modest Canadian outfit. The Reds have won back-to-back Canadian club championships and the hearts and minds of Toronto soccer fans but have yet to reward their loyal patrons with a single appearance in Major League Soccer’s playoffs since joining the league in 2007. 

The win over Motagua, runner-up in the recent Honduran season, should give the Reds a much-needed boost of confidence as they enter the second half of the MLS campaign and prepare for what should be a long, drawn-out battle over a potential playoff berth with a handful of other clubs. 

Motagua is no pushover. Its starting lineup included four players who represented Honduras at the recent World Cup in South Africa, including midfielder and ex-TFC member Amado Guevara.

But Motagua’s glittering star power didn’t seem to impress or intimidate TFC, who dictated the pace of the game in the first half by fearlessly pressuring the Hondurans inside their half of the field. 

A fan favourite during his tenure in Toronto, Guevara was a non-factor against his former club and was substituted at the start of the second half by Motagua coach Ramon Maradiaga. 

Toronto’s pressing game paid off in the 20th minute. Forward O’Brian White forced a turnover, leading to captain Dwayne De Rosario feeding a perfect pass to Barrett to slot home from inside the box. 

Unlike last Saturday’s 1-1 draw against FC Dallas, Toronto did not let up and try to defend its one-goal lead. Instead, it kept the pressure on Motagua in the second half, with Julian de Guzman and De Rosario carving out quality scoring chances. 

Some timely defending by Nana Attakora and Adrian Cann in the final 20 minutes helped preserve the win for Toronto. 

This two-game qualifier comes at a busy time for Toronto, with Tuesday’s affair the second of five matches for the Reds during a gruelling 15-day stretch. 

Toronto flies to Kansas City to take on the Wizards on Saturday, then travels to Honduras for the return leg against Motagua on Aug. 3. Toronto is back home on Aug. 7 against Chivas USA on Aug. 7 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3:30 pm ET).

Not surprisingly, Preki took Barrett out at half time. He also gave the night off to starting midfielder Nick LaBrocca, and played the rarely-used Joseph Nane in his place.

Barrett believes Toronto has to rely on its bench in order to grind out results during this difficult stretch.

"It’s tough. The good thing about today is that Joseph Nane played 90 minutes," Barrett said. "That’s what we need — a lot of players to step up who haven’t been called up before and play as good as Joseph did today."