|Toronto FC forward Joao Plata battles for the ball against FC Dallas defender Jair Benitez during the first half of their MLS soccer match in Toronto July 20, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)
TORONTO - It would take a miracle for Toronto FC to make Major League Soccer’s playoff derby, but the last-place team is still playing for something this season.
Which makes Wednesday’s 8 p.m. CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round opener at home against Real Esteli Toronto’s most important game of the year.
The Reds must put up a strong result against Esteli because the teams will meet again in Nicaragua next week. Not conceding a goal at BMO Field is of huge importance, as always, in a return leg series like this.
With its league season all but lost, the Reds must save face by getting through to the next round, as they did last season by beating Motagua of Honduras. Former head coach Preki concentrated on MLS games last time around, throwing out weakened lineups for CONCACAF, preventing the Reds from advancing further in the competition.
New TFC coach/technical director Aron Winter has said that will not be the case again. TFC is 3-11-9 in MLS play, last in the East and second-last to Vancouver overall, despite playing more games than all but two teams.
Only a massive winning streak the likes of which the franchise has never seen in its five-year history would get it into the post-season for the first time.
With the odds of that occurring miniscule, Winter surely will send out his best on Wednesday.
That would include Joao Plata, who didn’t travel to Kansas City for Saturday’s 4-2 setback due to a visa issue and, possibly, Canadian midfielders Terry Dunfield and Julian de Guzman who have been battling injuries. Both practised with the team on Tuesday.
De Guzman thrives against Central or South American competition and arguably turned in his best performance in a Toronto uniform when TFC upset Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul in the CCL group stage last year.
The return of either defensive midfielder would be beneficial, as TFC’s midfielders looked terrible on Saturday. Captain Maicon Santos, in particular, struggled to adjust to a new role which required him to play at both ends rather than just attack. Santos was directly or partly responsible for two goals.
New forwards Danny Koevermans and Ryan Johnson both scored in the second half against Kansas City and the return of Plata could make them even more effective.
But the defence is of most concern. Eddy Viator has underwhelming in his brief stay with the club, Richard Eckersley does not seem suited to a centre back role and the team has released Dan Gargan who was a dedicated worker and good teammate, but technically limited.
More changes to the backline appear imminent.
TFC advanced to the CCL group stage beating Vancouver in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.
Esteli is a two-time Nicaraguan champion that has made one appearance in the CCL preliminary round, losing 1-0 to then Canadian champion Montreal back in 2008.
Earlier this year, Real Salt Lake blew a chance to become the first MLS CCL champion by losing to Monterrey of Mexico. Monterrey will now represent the region at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December.
NEED TO KNOW
Real Esteli appears to be a tougher opponent than the one TFC took out last year to advance at the CONCACAF Champions League.
Esteli is a two-time Nicaraguan champion (1991 and 1999) and battled back after losing 1-0 to rival Walter Ferreti to win 3-1 in the second leg of the Nicaraguan Clausura final, to book a date against the Reds.
Last year, HD Motagua of Honduras appeared overmatched at times.
Esteli previously lost to the Montreal Impact at this tournament and was not allowed back until now because of stadium inadequacy.
The team was the first Nicaraguan side ever to advance at the Copa Interclubes UNCAF, beating Real Espana in 2004.
Founded in 1960, Esteli has finished in the top five of Nicaragua’s top division annually since 1986. Four of its members compete for Nicaragua internationally.
— Ryan Wolstat