TORONTO - Torontoís plan to manage a 2-1 first-leg lead while seeing out an away match in horrible conditions helped TFC to a comfortable 4-2 aggregate win over Real Esteli in the CONCACAF preliminary round Tuesday night.
While Ryan Johnsonís brace sealed passage, the tactical approach head coach Aron Winter took into the away match did just as much to not only solve the Nicaraguans, but deal with Esteliís poor surface.
After largely refusing to alter tactics throughout the season, Winter implemented extremely direct tactics that forced Esteliís weak defence into costly mistakes. In playing on such a bad pitch, it was crucial to keep a majority of play in TFCís middle and final third in order to avoid the defensive breakdowns that eventually led to TFCís two goals.
In a game that hardly resembled the offensive domination from TFCís home-leg, it was more important Toronto constantly played up field and out of danger to avoid allowing the conditions or the referee a shot at spoiling the match.
For what itís worth, Esteliís sorry pitch played to TFCís advantage once they went up a goal as the surface denied both clubs the option of maintaining possession and manufacturing more than a few opportunities through 90 minutes.
With Esteli head coach Otoniel Olivas stating that the Nicaraguans were looking forward to playing on a hazardous pitch that appeared worse than most Toronto house league grounds, one has to wonder if small clubs should be allowed to purposely muck up a pitch before playing more technical Major League Soccer clubs.
Although it remains crucial that small Central American clubs enter the tournament to groom talent and garner Champions League excitement, both clubs rarely strung together three or four passes across a playing surface that provided untimely bounces and strange skips.
Esteliís Estadio Independencia is something CONCACAF needs to re-examine as minimum facility requirements were not met in whatís supposed to be a high-profile tournament.
Around the pitch
As a parting shot, how bad must Esteliís home ground have been in 2009 when the Nicaraguans were removed from the Champions League because the club didnít have a suitable venue? ... Aside from the red laser pointer that constantly moved across reserve Ďkeeper Milos Kocicís head during a first-half corner kick Tuesday, the Nicaraguan audience was surprisingly tame in terms of flying objects ... As for Kocic, Winterís No. 2 corrected his poor display in the opening leg, showing heís capable of making good decisions in hostile situations ... The same canít be said of the refereeing as Toronto dealt with questionable decisions most of the night. While the first-half penalty against Andy Iro is debatable, how did Honduran referee Raul Castro not whistle when Richard Eckersley had his kit ripped before being taken to ground late in the match? ... A lot will be made of Johnsonís opener, but the second finish was even better. The composure to confidently curl a ball into the far corner at an important moment and under horrid conditions speaks to an upgrade in quality ... Playing in such poor conditions will undoubtedly prepare the Reds for their next test in the group stage on Aug. 18 in Panama against Tauro F.C. ... What are we to make of Javier Martina being replaced before half-time in Nicaragua? After missing a first-half sitter, Winter pulled the winger who continues to lose playing time. It was two weeks ago when Winter yanked Maicon Santos early in the match before sending him to FC Dallas in exchange for a young attacker.
Eric Avilaís ability to create opportunities off the dribble while threatening in behind opposing back-lines adds to TFCís current playing philosophy.
ďHe is an attacking midfielder that fits into our immediate and long-term plans,Ē Winter said.
FC Dallas came close to brokering a loan deal that would have sent Avila to Mexicoís Atlas, but the deal fell through last month.
A similar player to Joao Plata, Avila could settle on the opposite side of a 4-3-3 formation that asks a lot of its outside attackers and allows them to run at isolated wing backs before providing quality service ó a role Santos never worked in.
According to FCDallas.com, Santos learned of the trade before TFCís 2-2 draw in Portland.
ďI was kind of surprised,Ē he said. ďI like (Dallasí) style and I like the team. It will be good for me.Ē
The Reds return to MLS action when they travel to play Dwayne De Rosario and D.C. United this Saturday.
But whatís on many supportersí minds is what level of seriousness the organization will carry into CONCACAFís next phase as the Reds open group play in Panama City in what must be considered a must win.
But with an MLS match in Chicago less than three days later, will Winter push for maximum points with that on his mind?
It would be a shame to advance to this point only to replay the disaster from a year ago when a loss in Panama to Arabe Unido all but sealed TFCís fate in the competition.