Toronto FC faces herculean task in Champions League rematch with Mexico's Cruz Azul

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Trailing 3-1 on aggregate, Toronto FC faces a herculean task Tuesday against Mexico league leader Cruz Azul in the second leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal.

Cruz Azul is unbeaten in its last 18 matches (15-0-3) in all competitions and is playing at home in its Azteca Stadium fortress in Mexico City, albeit without fans due to the pandemic.

Toronto (0-1-1) has yet to record a win in the young MLS season, has shown frailties on defence and is missing two of its three designated players with Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo (thigh) out injured and newly acquired Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo in quarantine in Florida.

The permutations are bleak, with away goals the first tiebreaker in event of an aggregate tie. In essence, Toronto has to score at least three goals and the degree of difficulty grows if the Mexican side scores.

TFC will survive if it wins 3-0. A 3-1 Toronto win would produce a penalty shootout. Should Toronto notch four goals, Cruz Azul would have to score three times to advance.

"We have to make sure that we capitalize on our chances and I think there will be chances there for us," Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio said Monday from Mexico City. "So we believe in our team and we believe we're not out of this tie.

"Anything can happen in football. As long as we're aggressive and we go in with a positive mindset, anything's possible."

Toronto did not help its own cause in the first leg last week in Tampa, with goals coming off both a corner and free kick. The other followed a TFC turnover.

Toronto has been vulnerable on set pieces, no matter the opponent.

Toronto coach Chris Armas said the first leg, while a loss, showed signs of what his team has to do to succeed.

"We understand that there's opportunity in the game," he said. "That they're obviously a good team, in a really good way, a winning way. But when we're at our best we can create chances against them in transition, picking up second balls."

"There hasn't been games, whether that's pre-season or MLS or Champions League, that we don't score," he added. "So we know we can score from transition, from some pressing, maybe a set piece … But we also know we have to tighten things defensively."

The good news on that front is that centre back Chris Mavinga is available after being sidelined with a calf injury. The athletic Frenchman provides a safety net to veteran Omar Gonzalez, who while excellent in the air and good positionally is not that mobile.

Just how available Mavinga is will have to wait until the team sheet comes out Tuesday night.

Toronto GM Ali Curtis, meanwhile, continues to tweak his roster.

TFC is reportedly working on a deal to acquire defender Kemar Lawrence from Belgium's Anderlecht. The 28-year-old Jamaican international is a known quantity for Curtis and Armas, having played for both during their time at the New York Red Bulls.

Lawrence, an MLS all-star and member of the league Best XI during his five seasons with the Red Bulls, joined Anderlecht in January 2020.

On Monday, Toronto confirmed a loan deal for Liam Fraser that will see the Canadian midfielder spend the rest of the season with Columbus Crew SC. Fraser will not be allowed to play against Toronto for duration of the loan period.

The loan deal, which includes Columbus sending TFC US$50,000 in general allocation money, reunites Fraser with Columbus president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who was Toronto's GM when Fraser signed his homegrown player contract in January 2018.

Toronto has had time to rest since the first leg against Cruz Azul, with an MLS bye on the weekend. Another positive is fullback Richie Laryea returns from suspension.

Cruz Azul (13-2-2 in Liga MX play) had to settle for a 1-1 tie Saturday with 14th-place Tijuana after conceding a 94th-minute goal.

Bottom line Tuesday, TFC will have to be perfect at both ends. And need more than a little luck.

Cruz Azul has imploded before. In the December 2020 Liga MX semifinals, it blanked Pumas 4-0 in the first leg only to crash 4-0 in the second leg. Pumas, as the higher seed, advanced to the final where it lost to Club Leon, whom Toronto dispatched last month in the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16.

In February 2020, ESPN featured Cruz Azul prominently in its "ESPN FC Misery Index," noting at the time that Cruz Azul has finished runners-up on six occasions since winning the Mexican title in 1997 — while going through 14 head coaches.

There is even a verb — cruzazulear — think "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." Or just Google Cruz Azul and curse.

Reminded of that by a Mexican reporter, Armas dismissed such lore.

"This is not important to me. What's important is that we're playing a good team. They're a different team in 2021 right now. A team built for success and a team that has been dominant. So if we start to think too much about the past and curses, we're missing the big picture.

"The big picture is that we have a big opportunity."

Against big odds.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press