|Toronto FC's captain Maicon Santos (right) celebrates a goal. (Reuters)
TORONTO - The heat will be uncomfortable, the team likely exhausted from a brutal travel schedule over the past few days, but really, there are no excuses for Toronto FC.
Despite only prevailing 2-1 at home last Wednesday against Real Esteli, the team showed that it is quite a few levels better than the Central Americans it will take on again on Tuesday.
A troubling lack of finishing ability and a gaffe by backup goalkeeper Milos Kocic made the first meeting seem close, but it really was anything but. TFC dominated and never looked seriously threatened.
That's why the humidity and the thousands of miles flown by the Reds from Toronto to Portland and on to Nicaragua should not be used as a crutch by the visitors.
The gulf between the two sides is wide enough that the Reds should be able to surge through to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League despite the obstacles.
The players and head coach Aron Winter certainly feel that way.
“We still have to play the game but I’m convinced that we are going to get to the group stage,” Winter said after the win in Toronto.
“We dominated at every position and we should just keep things the way they were and play the same way,” said Kocic, who likely will be replaced by regular ’keeper Stefan Frei who was brilliant in Saturday's 2-2 draw in Portland.
The Reds know the return game will not be as much of a cakewalk as the BMO Field encounter and also recognize they could have made life easier on themselves with better offensive execution last week.
New TFC forward Ryan Johnson has experience playing in similar Central and South American locales due to his international duties with Jamaica.
“It’s going to be awful atmosphere, the field is going to be terrible, the humidity is going to be tough,” Johnson said.
“We’d rather be going into that game with a 3-0, 2-0 situation, but we’re not, it’s 2-1, we’ve got to make sure we don’t get scored on that’s the No. 1 thing, but at the same time, we’re a better team. We have to be confident in our abilities going anywhere in the world.”
But what if the Reds continue to have troubles putting balls in and keeping them out? What if the squad somehow doesn’t make it through to the next round after advancing a year ago against a Honduran side?
“If we don’t get the job done I’ll be beyond disappointed, I’ll be pretty angry,” Johnson said.
“We have to play as tough as possible, be men out there and take care of business in Nicaragua."
The team will be buoyed by its stunning comeback in the Pacific Northwest.
After falling behind 2-0 to the expansion Timbers, the Reds made adjustments and turned things around.
Rugged midfielder Terry Dunfield seemed to change the attitude of his mates, living up to his reputation as an aggressive-minded force while also helping to move things forward efficiently.
With Julian de Guzman having difficulties returning to top form after a long injury absence, Dunfield could find himself in the starting lineup.
New forward Peri Marosevic started the comeback in his Reds debut, potting his first in the 71st minute. Expect to see him come in as a reserve again.
Where that leaves one-time captain Maicon Santos remains to be seen. Santos is with the team but did not make the bench against Portland and did not play against Esteli after a horrific outing in a recent loss to Kansas City.
Joao Plata will likely be back in the starting XI since he scored twice against the Nicaraguans last week and gave the Timbers all they could handle on Saturday, assisting on both goals and hitting the post himself.