TFC beats Esteli, advances in Champions League

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:28 AM ET

TORONTO - A goal in each half from TFC’s Ryan Johnson Tuesday night helped the Reds to a 2-1 result in Nicaragua and a 4-2 aggregate win over Real Esteli in the Champions League preliminary round.

Needing only a draw to advance to the tournament’s next phase, Toronto earned passage into the region’s group stage for the second consecutive year.

Toronto’s first strike came on 36 minutes when a floated ball into the offensive third fell to Johnson for a first-time half-volley from 25 metres out that gave Esteli’s ’keeper no chance as it rose into the upper corner.

The comfort was short-lived, however, when Honduran referee Raul Castro judged TFC’s Andy Iro to have handled the ball in the box just before the half.

Esteli’s Rudel Calero sent reserve ’keeper Milos Kocic to his left as he tucked the ensuing penalty into the opposite corner to make it 1-1 at the break.

But a mistake from Esteli ’keeper Carlos Mendieta gave the Reds a critical second away goal just after halftime when a poor outlet pass fell to Johnson at the top of the box. With the Esteli ’keeper scrambling to get across the face of goal, Johnson tucked a cool finish into the far corner.

Pitch conditions at the Estadio Independencia were deplorable. The uneven surface featured ankle-high grass with hazardous areas of mud.

The poor surface seemed to favour Real Esteli until the conditions inevitably led to the poor pass from Mendieta that gifted TFC its 2-1 lead.

The lack of pitch quality forced Toronto into a sloppy game of clearing its lines and playing away from danger. Head coach Aron Winter implemented direct tactics in order to avoid losing possession in bad areas of the field.

The home side threatened rarely throughout the match and never found a way to break down Toronto’s defence.

Johnson nearly completed his hat-trick in the 56th minute when he split two defenders at the left side of the box to put himself in alone on goal. However, Mendieta closed the angle as Johnson attempted to slip the ball inside the near post to keep the match at 2-1.

Winter used a mix of reserves and first-team players to kill off the game and grab the needed result. With designated players Danny Koevermans and Julian de Guzman in reserve, Terry Dunfield earned his first start for the Reds, putting out a number of fires and cleaning things up in front of TFC’s defence.

Showing confidence in his number two, Winter called on Milos Kocic once again following the calamity that gifted the Nicaraguans an away goal last week. Providing safe goalkeeping throughout the match, Kocic looked steady and confident.

The result puts TFC into Group C with Mexican club UNAM, Panamanian side Tauro and either El Salvador’s Alianza or FC Dallas. Group play begins later this month with the top two finishers from Group C advancing to the knockout phase in March.

Toronto returns to MLS action looking to avenge a 3-0 loss earlier this season when the Reds travel to D.C. United Saturday.


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