Torsten Frings has been a major reason why Toronto FC has reeled off a five-game unbeaten string in all competitions. The German international has displayed a mix of heady play and gritty determination on the pitch, doing whatever is asked of him by head coach Aron Winter, including dropping to the backline.
Meanwhile, Eric Avila has sparked the team’s offence in his two outings with the club, showing the speed and creativity that endeared him to FC Dallas fans before his trade to Toronto earlier this month.
On Thursday night in Panama City, TFC will have to make do without the presence of either in its lineup.
Frings is suspended due to yellow card accumulation incurred during the preliminary stage of the competition, while Avila already competed for Dallas in the CCL earlier this season so is banned for the rest of the way.
Facing FC Tauro in the opener of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage in Central America was always going to be difficult. Doing it without new captain Frings and the dangerous Avila only ups the challenge.
Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield (assuming he is fully fit) will be asked to direct traffic in the midfield the way Frings so cleverly does. Replacing Avila will not be easy either.
It is unclear if forward Ryan Johnson will be able to return after starring against Real Esteli in the previous round but another newcomer, Peri Marosevic has fit in quite well up front with Joao Plata and Danny Koevermans. Should the versatile Johnson play, he could take Avila’s place as an attacking midfielder.
Marosevic has scored twice in three game and helped Plata score the lone goal during Saturday’s 1-0 home victory over Real Salt Lake by charging in on keeper Nick Rimando.
TFC is expected to return to its preferred 4-3-3 formation after going with a 3-4-3 against Real Salt Lake.
By all accounts, this should be a slow, boring encounter. Tauro models itself after Juventus and places a first, second and third priority on defending.
Goals could be scarce both in this match and in the return leg in Toronto next month.
Plata and Marosevic are the best bets to break through, but they will need quality service to get chances against a strong defence.
De Guzman and Dunfield have been accurate of late in distributing the ball, but Tauro should make things difficult for the two Canadians in the midfield.
Toronto is just 4-11-11 in league play this season, but a sterling 5-0-1 in Canadian championship/CONCACAF play.
The game will be the first of a three in seven days, and four in 10 days.
The team will get a nice break after this stretch before its brutal September kicks off.
TFC will play six matches between Sept. 10-27.
Getting results late in those difficult runs will be a major challenge for the Reds, which makes Thursday’s opener all the more crucial.
Tauro is Panama’s top club, having won seven Liga Profesional de Futbol titles since 1988, more than any other team.
Given that the MLS season is all but over, playoff-wise for the Reds, putting out the best lineup possible against Tauro makes sense. Players can be rested on Sunday in Chicago against the Fire, a team even lower than the Reds in the MLS table.
However, Winter has been anything but predictable in his first season in Toronto, so all we know for sure is that Frings and Avila won’t be in the lineup on Thursday night.
Toronto FC at FC Tauro, Panama City
Tonight 8 p.m., Setanta
* Reds will be without suspended captain Maicon Santos and midfielder Eric Avila who is ineligible for the competition.
* Eddy Viator, Gianluca Zavarise and Leandre Griffit are still nursing injuries.
* Tauro has won eight Panamanian titles since 1984 inception.
* TFC failed to advance a year ago at this stage of the competition but did shock Mexico’s Cruz Azul at BMO Field.
* Rest of group includes MLS runner-up FC Dallas and Pumas UNAM of Mexico.
* Don’t get frustrated. Tauro is a defensive-minded side that tends not to give away many offensive chances. Revamped TFC likes to get creative and must react well to being stymied.
* Score at least one goal. With away goals often proving important, putting one in will set Toronto up well for the Sept. 20 rematch at BMO Field.