El atacante del Toronto FC, Jozy Altidore, anota ante el América de México en la primera mitad del juego de ida por las semifinales de la Liga de Campeones de CONCACAF el martes 3 de abril de 2018 en Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
No one really knew what to expect from Ashtone Morgan.
It was easy to write him off as any kind of serious contributor to this Toronto FC team after so long with so little soccer: due to injury, the Canadian left back featured only sporadically for the past two years.
And when Toronto signed Auro — a right back who could fill in on the opposite side — during the winter, it seemed like part of the motivation was to add some insurance behind first-choice left defender Justin Morrow in case Morgan’s best days were behind him.
Even Morgan’s most ardent backers — of which he has plenty, as a local boy — could not have expected this.
They could not have expected the 27-year-old to be at the center of a move that gave Toronto a 3-1 lead at the halfway mark of Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal first leg against Mexican giant Club América.
But he was.
Morgan combined with Sebastian Giovinco, fired a pass to Marky Delgado to switch the play and then bombed into the penalty area to convert a low cross and cap the victory for Toronto. Morgan’s goal followed a Giovinco penalty and a superb second from Jozy Altidore to give the Reds a decisive advantage, though América remains alive through Andrés Ibargüen’s brilliant away goal.
This was not a game short on loose passes and fouls that broke up its fluidity — partially as a result of the feisty approach of América, which plays in the image of its coach, Miguel Herrera. To say the ex-Mexico boss is animated on the touchline is putting it mildly.
Despite that, though, there were moments in which the undoubted quality of the two teams on the field shone through.
Giovinco continued his exceptional form in this competition by running at the América defense at every opportunity, and he had drawn a penalty — though the visitors were furious with the call — within 10 minutes.
The Italian had done the same against Real Salt Lake last week and missed the spot kick, but insisted on stepping up again and this time buried his shot straight down the middle.
Ibargüen replied with a moment of genius of his own. The winger shook off Michael Bradley no fewer than three times and waved goodbye to Eriq Zavaleta and Drew Moor, too, before smashing a shot beyond goalkeeper Alex Bono from inside the box.
That had América’s tails up. The Mexican club’s relentless pressing rattled Toronto, knocking the Reds out of their shape.
América did leave space behind its midfield as a result, though, and Giovinco and Altidore did not need a second invitation to exploit it. After Delgado had kept one such counterattack alive with a brave challenge, Giovinco knocked the ball over to Altidore and the American twisted and turned Bruno Valdéz before firing past Agustín Marchesín.
That proved to be a major psychological boost for the hosts. They came out after halftime a calmer, more collected outfit and Morgan, Giovinco, Delgado and Auro combined brilliantly to add a third.
There is usually one more chance there for the chasing teams in these situations, though, and América’s came through substitute Henry Martín. Bono got down low to preserve Toronto’s two-goal lead.
The Reds will now attempt to protect it at Estadio Azteca.