Toronto FC face uphill battle

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:02 PM ET

Though they won't come right out and say it, Tuesday made it clear that for Toronto FC, it is playoffs or bust.

Getting through to the CONCACAF Champions League group stage is nice and all, but there is now no doubt that going any further is secondary to advancing to Major League Soccer's post-season for the first time.

How else to explain the neutered lineup thrown out by the Reds in the 1-0 defeat to Arabe Unido in La Chorrera, Panama?

The match represented TFC's best -- many would say only -- chance at picking up a road win in this stage.

After all, MLS champion Real Salt Lake loses approximately once a year in the rarefied air at Rio Tinto Stadium and Cruz Azul is equally dominant at Mexico City.

After upsetting Cruz Azul at BMO, TFC was ahead of the game. Press the Panamanians and claim another win and the club would be in great shape as the talk of Group A.

Instead, the four sides are now tied in points and goal differential with four matches still to come.

With strikers Chad Barrett and Maicon Santos unavailable in Panama, coach Preki left designated player Mista, who despite some struggles, has been finding his form and fitness of late, on the bench for the entire evening and sat scoring leader Dwayne De Rosario for the opening half.

De Rosario thrives on a heavy workload and though there were concerns about how the pricey Mista would fare on turf, it was not the time to play it safe.

And, if you are giving Stefan Frei a rest, why turn to little-used Milos Kocic -- who, granted, played quite well -- when backup Jon Conway was excellent against Cruz Azul?

For his part TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston denied that Preki is looking past the CONCACAF tourney.

"No coach in their right mind would go into a game thinking we don't really want to win the game, I know Preki real well and that's not the case," Johnston told the Toronto Sun Thursday.

As for the club's thinking as a whole?

"You look to MLS first, playoffs," Johnston said.

"CONCACAF is a very big bonus ... Big games for our players, big games for our fans."

When pressed further whether that meant the Champions League was very much second fiddle, the inaugural Reds coach clarified.

"No, look, we want to get out of the group stage no ifs no buts about it," Johnston said.

"Getting out of the group stage is a big thing, especially our first time being in the qualifying (round)."

If that's the case, Preki does not appear to have received the memo. Preki did not attend the press conference.

Sure, three tough league games are coming up -- starting with RSL at BMO Saturday, but with the odds strongly leaning to at least one of Barrett or Maicon Santos being ready to return, why not unleash the clicking Mista/De Rosario pairing in Panama.

At least give your fans a chance to see what you can do in the tourney with the top available lineup before you put the Champions League on the backburner.

Preki has done many good things in his first season at the helm of the Reds, but this is a misstep that will linger.


Photos