Reds' lineup gamble dicey

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:49 PM ET

TORONTO - With reserve ‘keeper Milos Kocic under the microscope following the horror show that gifted Real Esteli a coveted away goal in a Reds’ 2-1 win in Toronto Wednesday night, head coach Aron Winter’s lineup was underwhelming considering the task at hand.

Understanding that TFC is in the midst of another brutal stretch, nothing less than a full-strength lineup should have been used against the Nicaraguan champion in order to render the tournament’s return-leg pointless.

En route to Portland ahead of Saturday’s match, it’s conceivable that Winter hoped to earn the desired multiple goal, shutout win against a much weaker side while resting influential players ahead of Saturday’s league game.

But a mix of academy products, reserves and designated players produced a limited attack that was held scoreless by Esteli for close to an hour before Joao Plata broke the deadlock.

By deploying a half-strength side that failed to orchestrate enough quality chances to put the series out of reach, Toronto will be forced to expend unnecessary energy by traveling many first-team players to Central America on extremely short rest.

While Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson and Doneil Henry had satisfactory outings, trotting out Plata, Mikael Yourassowsky and Julian de Guzman for 70 minutes might have provided the necessary three- or four-goal result.

The club would have had the option of not traveling a number of faces to Nicaragua, allowing Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans and Stefan Frei to rest at home in preparation for the ensuing weekend.

Instead, the Reds must travel a full team on an exhausting, cross-continent trip into one of the most hostile environments in the tournament if they hope to advance to the group stage Tuesday.

Dominant, but ...

The lack of urgency around the penalty area was unsettling as the match moved beyond halftime.

With Nick Soolsma and Gianluca Zavarise hesitant to send in first-time deliveries, poor service stymied the massive aerial advantage the Reds never fully took advantage of.

Other than a few glancing headers that were dealt with by Real Esteli’s Carlos Mendieta, how many quality chances did the Reds create over the course of 90 minutes?

Although Plata provided the second-half threat the club clearly lacked until he replaced Zavarise just after the break, the Ecuadoran’s goals were individual efforts that didn’t bear resemblance to TFC’s poor execution in the final third.

Toronto’s attack appeared one-dimensional against a CONCACAF minnow that wasn’t interested in pushing for an away goal. While the Reds were dominant in every category, the repetitious attempts to send in searching crosses from wide positions revealed a club without answers until Plata challenged Esteli’s defence late in the match.

With Maicon Santos largely out of favour, Ryan Johnson replaced the Brazilian as the club’s withdrawn attacker and did some good things throughout.

But rather than routinely spraying the ball wide in an effort to get on the end of wayward crosses and poor diagonals, in addition to using the flanks, the Jamaican has to start combining with Koevermans and Frings in order to provide more dynamic opportunities from other locations around the box.

Aside from Plata’s fantastic dead-ball curler that doubled the advantage, TFC never tested Mendieta with a shot from distance or close range for that matter.

And since Plata’s opener was a borderline own-goal, the Reds would have been in big trouble ahead of the return had Plata not given them breathing room with an absolute stunner.

Around the pitch

Confident heading into the return leg Tuesday, let’s not forget the Reds maintained a goal-advantage last year when they successfully took a 1-0 lead to Honduras and earned a draw against Motagua to advance to the Champions League group stage … Sure, Santos is likely out of favour following a disastrous game in Kansas City last weekend, but you have to wonder if Santos would have thrived Wednesday night with missed chances around the penalty area. To not dress the Brazilian sends a clear message … Was anyone else impressed when Toronto refused to play the ball out of bounds as multiple Nicaraguans faked injury? After cutting the lead in half, it was only a matter of time before Esteli players started to “cramp” up on the field … TFC announced Thursday they’ve acquired defender Dasan Robinson from Chicago in exchange for Dan Gargan and a second round pick. With Richard Eckersley’s loan status unknown, Robinson provides a good deal of cover for an unstable back line ... In addition to Robinson, TFC added U.S. U-20 forward Peri Marosevic, 22, from FC Dallas. A lottery pick in the 2009 draft, the Bosnian-born American is eligible for selection tomorrow in Portland.

Parting thoughts

Toronto needs a combination of six wins and multiple draws from its final 11 league matches for a chance at making this year’s play-in round.

Dropping crucial points at home early in the schedule looks to have sealed Toronto’s fate for a fifth-straight season.

But with the playoffs a distant dream, a new challenge is taking shape in the form of the Champions League.

And after watching TFC’s former bench boss throw away a golden opportunity to advance into the knockout stage last time around, we’re about to see how serious management is taking this year’s edition.


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