TORONTO - If the Toronto FC takes anything from its 2-1 Champions League win over Panamanian champion Tauro Thursday night, itís that it will not advance past the regionís group stage if it replicates a lifeless performance similar to that in Panama.
Despite having to overcome a bizarre officiating crew, a better than expected ó but still poor ó pitch and going without two key figures in midfield, TFC canít produce a similar effort and expect to earn points later in the competition.
Upon jumping out to healthy two-goal advantage in Panama City, Toronto sat back and ignored the fundamentals that spurred a positive opening to the match. With the home side controlling things from 30 minutes on, head coach Aron Winterís decision to drop a fourth player into defence set the Reds back even further.
After replacing Matt Stinson with Ashtone Morgan ó a decision that helped defensively but ended anything resembling possession ó following halftime, it invited Tauro to continuously run at Torontoís defence in search of a way back into things.
As Danny Koevermans was playing as a withdrawn attacker, the Reds began the second half with two midfielders and were overwhelmed throughout the second half. With Danleigh Borman and Julian de Guzman stranded in the centre of the park, Tauro had ample space to exploit and caused the Reds problems up until the final whistle.
In defence of Winter, the Reds were without Torsten Frings and Eric Avila ó two of the clubís best players in possession.
But if Toronto lines up in a similar fashion and attempts to defend for the better part of an hour against UNAM or FC Dallas later in the tournament, IT wonít be as lucky to escape with points.
In his most high profile match to date, Cuban referee Marcos Brea did little to break the pattern of disgraceful and arguably biased officiating that is common, if not expected, within CONCACAF.
Other than a 2014 World Cup qualifier between smaller island nations, Breaís most significant jobs prior to Thursday have come at the under-20 level.
Aside from credentials, the Cubanís mind-numbing decisions rewarded the home side so often it left many questioning his integrity at full-time.
The number of touch fouls and mysterious calls in dangerous areas provided the Panamanians continuous half-chances within the penalty area as the Reds were penalized 30 times ó double the number of fouls given against clubs in an average MLS match.
In terms of CONCACAF rewarding under-prepared and low-level referees high-profile matches, the region must assess its current pool of officials over the course of each tournament in an effort flush out those who are unqualified.
The Reds started in an extremely positive 3-4-3 system with Koevermans playing just behind Ryan Johnson, Joao Plata and Peri Marosevic.
But while Toronto looked dominant to start the game, the Reds looked set on sitting in and defending after scoring a pair of chance goals.
After switching to a 4-3-3 coming out of the break, Winterís desperation was apparent when Mikael Yourassowskyís entrance dropped Toronto into a 4-4-2 - a decision that inevitably conceded more than half the field in an effort to defend and preserve three points.
Although the club looked lifeless and massively fatigued throughout the second half, supporters shouldnít overlook Winterís willingness to adjust to circumstances after realizing TFC needed to defend with 10 men against an energized home side that looked fitter and sharper as the game wore on.
Around the pitch
The decision to issue Tauro a penalty following de Guzmanís late challenge was one of the few decisions the referee got right. The tackle was unnecessary and begs the question why Dasan Robinson wasnít in position to defend the play. In his first appearance, Robinson led Toronto in tackles and won key aerial battles late in the game. But the former Chicago Fire man appeared well out of position on the play that awarded Tauro a penalty as he should have drifted over in cover. Is there any question that the game should have been out of reach at that point anyway? While there was no reason for Torontoís third goal to be called back, Plata failed to capitalize on a number of quality opportunities. Offensive mistakes arenít as concerning as those that persist defensively. Communication at the back was non-existent without a suspended Frings. Further to that, Andy Iro carelessly gave away possession on multiple occasions and Richard Eckersleyís aimless roaming allowed Tauro to beat the offside trap late in the first half Ö With Frings returning to the lineup in Chicago, will Winter have the confidence to advance the German up the pitch and out of defence just yet?
Say what you will about the way they went about it, the Reds sit atop Group C.
Likely needing 10 points from six matches to finish top two in the group, an additional two wins and a draw should be enough now.
After TFC escaped Panama with the needed result, itís apparent that the Group C club that stumbles against Tauro will have a difficult time advancing.
If Toronto avoids falling to FC Dallas for a third consecutive time next Wednesday, the Reds will be in decent shape to progress with four games remaining in group play.