CCL Preview: Unity key to Toronto's chances in Panama

TORONTO — The CONCACAF Champions League has been good for Toronto FC so far. It might yet help them turn around what has been a frustrating Major League Soccer season.

The club, languishing in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, enter their first CCL Group C match Thursday against Tauro FC in Panama City riding a five-match unbeaten streak in all competitions.

“I think for us this tournament and the qualifying for the tournament has been very important,” midfielder Terry Dunfield said from Panama City on Wednesday night. “It sort of gave us a foundation to kick-start our league form, gave us a breather from league play and we were able to get a couple of good results and qualify to get to the group stages.”

Road trips to such far-flung places as Panama City and Mexico City — home of Pumas UNAM, the other non-MLS team in Group C — can be tiring, but they can also have a benefit for a team attempting to integrate many new players. TFC have added 10 players to the squad in just the last month.

“You come down to some pretty hostile conditions and conditions many of us haven’t faced before in our careers,” Dunfield said. “And if we put together a result, it brings a togetherness within the squad.”

Toronto reached the group stage by beating Real Estelí in a home-and-home series 4-2 on aggregate in the CCL preliminary round. The win in the second match that put them through was played on a pitch in Nicaragua that was one of the worst the Toronto players had seen in their careers.

That shouldn’t be a problem Thursday — “To be honest, [the pitch] looks like Wembley compared to the one in Nicaragua,” Dunfield said — but the opponent could prove tricky. Tauro, coached by Juan Carlos Cubilla, currently sit in second place in the Panamanian top flight with a 3-1-1 record. They are led by sometime Panamanian international midfielder Juan Pérez and newly acquired Nicaraguan striker Juan “Illuminado” Barrera, aka the Illuminated One.

For Dunfield, who was with on the Vancouver Whitecaps squad that lost in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship final and put TFC into the CCL, this is an unexpected opportunity to play in the continental tournament. He was traded to Toronto on July 14, and now expects to take a leadership role when they take the field on Thursday.

“I think it’s important for senior players to lead by example for sure,” he said, “which will then give young players the freedom to go out and play especially in difficult conditions away from home. … If we limit our mistakes and play the way we can, I’m sure the results will follow.”

Frings, Avila out

Midfielder and team captain Torsten Frings is suspended for the Tauro game because of two yellow cards picked up in the preliminary round. Eric Avila is not eligible because he was on the FC Dallas roster for the tournament.

However, another former Dallas player, forward Peri Marosevic, is eligible to play for Toronto because he was not on that team’s CCL roster previously.