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Toronto FC exits Concacaf Champions League with Independiente draw

TORONTO — It’s hard to say whether this match provided more questions or answers for Toronto FC.

The Reds’ 1-1 draw Tuesday with Club Atlético Independiente de la Chorrera from Panama, which confirmed their early exit from the Concacaf Champions League, was a better effort than the 4-0 reverse they suffered in Panama a week earlier.

It had to be, really. But that should not detract from some of the positives out there: a far greater level of intensity from back to front, a decent debut from Nick DeLeon on the wing and a goal for Jordan Hamilton, the talented young striker who has struggled to live up to his potential at BMO Field and did not appear guaranteed a new contract at the end of last season.

“For me personally, when your contract expires with a club like this and you think about leaving, all the things that you maybe took for granted as a young player come into your mind,” Hamilton said. “Those are things I told myself I wouldn’t take for granted anymore.”

Toronto did not plan on failing to knock out a side regarded as one of the tournament’s minnows, though, let alone lose by a 5-1 aggregate scoreline without even recording a win on home turf (or sand, which the field was held together with as a consequence of the difficulty of growing grass in Canada in February).

The performance was nowhere near improved enough to redeem them. New signing Laurent Ciman, brought in to stabilize what was a dreadful defense in 2018, made an error-strewn start to his TFC career and gifted Independiente its equalizer in the 67th minute. At the other end, the attack looked short of ideas beyond crosses aimed toward Hamilton.

When one such delivery, from Justin Morrow, produced the opening goal in the 19th minute amid a flurry of TFC pressure, it appeared the tie was not over. DeLeon had already sent one good chance over the crossbar and Hamilton had forced a good save from goalkeeper José Guerra with a curling effort. Hamilton’s looping header after Morrow’s cross from the left was out of Guerra’s reach. 

Club Atletico Independiente defender Gerardo Negrete, front left, and forward Gustavo Bolvar (8) embrace after the team defeated Toronto FC to win a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match in Toronto on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

“The only way anyone was scoring goals today was in the air,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “It wasn’t going to be scored on the ground unless you make a big mistake. Anything that was going to be passing or relatively intricate or fast wasn’t going to happen — not on the field tonight.”

Morrow raided forward from left back at every opportunity and came close to a second goal after being played through by Jonathan Osorio. Guerra saved well again and the loose ball was hacked off the line.

Independiente mustered little at the other end beyond one long-range shot from Gustavo Bolivar that drew a comfortable save from Alex Bono.

As the half approached, though, TFC began to run out of ideas and did not emerge after the break looking like it had many more. Vanney was not spoiled for options from the bench, with Terrence Boyd replacing Ayo Akinola alongside Hamilton to provide a new target in the box.

Then came Ciman’s mistake — a mistimed header on the halfway line that played Omar Browne in on goal. The winger evaded a last-ditch sliding tackle from Chris Mavinga, rounded Bono and tapped into the empty net. Needing six goals at that point to progress, the tie was over and Vanney used the tail end of the game to give defender Drew Moor, who is building up his fitness after injury, some minutes as well as re-signed winger Tsubasa Endoh.

For Independiente, this freezing night in front of a small BMO Field crowd will go down in the club’s history. A tie with Sporting Kansas City or Liga MX side Toluca awaits, and the visiting bench erupted into celebration when the final whistle was blown.

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