TORONTO - Toronto FC will spend the rest of the season playing out the string.
Already seven points out of an MLS playoff spot with four games to play, the Reds’ hopes of making it out of Group A of the CONCACAF Champions League were dashed by the right foot of MLS MVP candidate Javier Morales.
Morales’ second-half free kick goal gave Real Salt Lake a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC Tuesday night, giving RSL the point it needed to clinch a spot in the quarters.
By beating Arabe Unido Tuesday, Cruz Azul clinched the other qualifying spot. TFC’s final group stage game, Oct. 19 against Arabe Unido, is meaningless.
Morales, who had missed the previous four games through a mix of suspension time and a knee injury, came in as a half-time sub and sparked an RSL team that was trailing 1-0 at the half, even though coach Jason Kreis rested five regulars for their 1-1 draw with Colorado Saturday, so they’d be set up to clinch with a game to spare.
Morales’ goal was the first Real Salt Lake has scored in Toronto since TFC was born as a franchise, breaking 428 minutes of scoreless soccer at BMO.
Because of connecting problems in Atlanta, Real Salt Lake was forced to cancel scheduled practices in Toronto, and Kreis didn’t know if Morales would be fit or not.
“Absolutely, it was a big gamble,” said Kreis. “The question was, how many minutes could he last?”
“It was a risk we had to take,” Morales said through an interpreter. “I felt OK. I wasn’t sure that I could go 45 minutes, but we were lucky, everything was good.”
But TFC’s defensive set-up on the Morales equalizer was ridiculous. Julian de Guzman, all of 5-foot-7, was placed on the goal line. He leapt to try and head Morales free kick away from danger, but the ball only skidded off his big mop of a haircut. It deflected a bit, but not enough to prevent from hitting the back of the net.
Generally, teams try to put tall defenders on the line. It was like asking a 5-foot-10 man to play centre in the NBA.
The goal cancelled out Jacob Peterson’s first goal as a Red.
And it wasn’t like Peterson’s goal was a cheapie, either. It was one for the personal highlight reel.
And the provider? Dwayne De Rosario? No, maybe the best pass a TFC player has made all season came out of the right arm of keeper Jon Conway, playing in the place of usual No. 1 keeper Stefan Frei. Conway launched a throw that travelled 50 yards and found Peterson — it was the same kind of accuracy we’re used to seeing from Jose Bautista, gunning runners down from right field.
“We work on that,” said Peterson. “Jon’s got a great arm on him.”
RSL midfielder Will Johnson decided to try and lay out to cut off the pass rather than track back defensively. He missed, and the ball went right to the feet of Peterson, who led a two-on-one break.
Peterson decided to hold and shoot, a picture-perfect blast that beat all-star goalkeeper Nick Rimando just inside the left post.
Just before Morales equalized, Peterson, who was TFC’s most effective player on the night, was subbed off by coach Nick Dasovic, with Mista — who may compete with Kansas City bust Claudio Lopez as the most underwhelming designated player in MLS to date — coming on.
Dasovic also had TFC sit back and try to soak up RSL’s pressure. He felt that, after last week’s 0-0 draw with Cruz Azul in Mexico and Saturday’s loss to San Jose, his team was tired — and couldn’t play a pressure game.
“We sat back tonight, as you saw.”