Toronto FC positioned to reach finals on backs of Altidore, Giovinco, role players
The question for any team hosting the first leg of a home-and-away series is: Did it create enough of a cushion heading into the away leg?
For Toronto FC, the definitive answer won't come for another week, but after Tuesday's 3-1 victory against Club America in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, the Reds have to like their position. Yes, America bagged an away goal, but the two-goal lead TFC will take to the Azteca -- and the venue's lung-busting altitude -- puts it in control.
Toronto is in this position because once again its two-headed monster of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore delivered. Giovinco won and converted a first-half penalty with Altidore's first-time pass putting Giovinco in a one-on-one matchup with Edson Alvarez that ended with Giovinco going down under Alvarez's challenge. Club America protested, and the call was borderline, but Alvarez didn't help himself with his willingness to go to the ground. After having a penalty saved last weekend against Real Salt Lake, Giovinco coolly converted, driving this shot down the middle with Augustín Marchesín diving to his right.
Just before halftime, and with America looking as if it might take over the match following Andres Ibarguen's spectacular equalizer, the roles were reversed, with Giovinco releasing Altidore to convert with a sharp finish.
This is nothing new of course. It was largely through the heroics of Giovinco and Altidore that Toronto won a domestic treble last year, with Altidore scoring the winning goal in both the MLS Eastern Conference final series against the Columbus Crew, as well as in the MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders. Of course, doing so in the CCL amounts to a higher level, and while it's no surprise to see Giovinco setting up the winner, the match also highlighted Altidore's underrated passing. The combination makes for a formidable partnership.
But just as familiar for TFC were the numerous contributions from its supporting cast. This was a night when the likes of midfielder Victor Vasquez and defender Chris Mavinga weren't even in the 18, while Ager Aketxe and Justin Morrow didn't make it off the bench. Marky Delgado in particular delivered an impressive performance on both ends of the field. Delgado's willingness to get stuck in helped keep the play alive in the run-up to Altidore's goal. On the attacking side, it was a deft pass from the newly minted U.S. international that freed up Auro on the right wing so that his cross could be hammered home by Ashtone Morgan for Toronto's third.
The goal was especially sweet for Morgan, the first homegrown signing in the club's history who has been buried on the TFC bench by Morrow. But with Morrow injured, Morgan stepped up, not only finishing the sequence that led to third goal but getting involved in the buildup as well.
Delgado's sharpness was needed on this night, and not just because of the absence of Vasquez. America did plenty to try and disrupt Toronto's rhythm by pressuring high up the field and giving Michael Bradley precious little time on the ball. It led to some ragged passing during a first-half spell where America was on the front foot culminating with Bradley and Drew Moor getting badly beaten by Ibarguen on America's only goal.
Yet such is the depth of Toronto that it is able to survive difficult stretches be it for an individual or the entire team. It helps to have sharp goalkeeping as well, and Alex Bono delivered what could be the save of the series when he stoned substitute Henry Martin in the 83rd minute.
Now it's up to TFC to finish the job. The possible return of players like Mavinga and Vasquez should give manager Greg Vanney a boost, and with America needing multiple goals, it should allow Toronto plenty of opportunities to strike on the counter where both Giovinco and Altidore looked dangerous all night.
The altitude of the Azteca no doubt makes for a complication. Along with the America's attacking talent, the challenge for TFC will be immense. The emotions are already running high, with Club America manager Miguel Herrera accusing Toronto police of assaulting three of his players as they headed to the locker room at halftime. He also criticized the referees for making America change parts of their uniform due to a color clash. TFC's Jonathan Osorio told the Toronto Sun that he was elbowed in the face by a Club America assistant at halftime.
For Toronto, keeping its collective composure as well as managing tempo will be paramount. That will prove difficult, but this is a veteran group, one with considerable experience playing down in Mexico. If TFC can succeed on both of those fronts, then a spot in the CCL final will be a reality.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.