Head coach Chris Armas called the postgame locker-room vibe “electric,” with the shorthanded Reds knocking off the reigning Liga MX champions.
Here are three areas that sparked Toronto to an upcoming quarterfinal matchup in late-April and early May (dates to be determined) against Mexican side Cruz Azul, who beat Haitian side Arcahaie to also advance past the Round of 16.
Youngsters step up
You could form a pretty darn good five-a-side team with who Toronto didn’t have in their starting XI Wednesday.
Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, center back Chris Mavinga, midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Alejandro Pozuelo, and forwards Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola were all missing for one reason or another. Pozuelo is the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Akinola is one of the league’s brightest young talents, to highlight two holes.
But that mattered little after 90 minutes, as Armas entrusted four academy players with key roles. Left winger Jacob Shaffelburg provided the assist on Patrick Mullins’ opener in the 55th minute and midfielder Noble Okello had a would-be goal in the 29th minute called back for an offside decision. Center back Luke Singh was steady after signing his second short-term agreement (four-day contract) of 2021, while midfielder Ralph Priso was tireless in the engine room.
Those four all got the starting nod, leaving Mullins impressed with the players coming through Toronto’s academy. All but Singh have signed Homegrown deals.
“I saw a group of players that not only stepped up in this moment, they embraced it, they shined in that moment,” Mullins said. “We've been seeing their qualities ever since they've been with us in training, in this preseason, and I think we all had belief in what we could do as a group when they were all on the pitch.
“… We saw in their performances, from the guys who started and the guys who came in, that we have quality players and I think we have hungry players that just wanted to get started and keep showing what they can do on these types of stages.”
Homegrown forward Jordan Perruzza also showed encouraging moments off the bench, seeing out the result with hold-up play and work rate. These pressure-filled minutes should only bolster Toronto’s depth during the 2021 MLS season, too.
MB90 shows the way
Michael Bradley was immense against Club Leon, especially with veterans needing to carry a young, eager group that could’ve buckled against a quality opponent.
Toronto’s captain answered the call and was involved in 13 duels, only trailing right back Richie Laryea in that category. He completed a team-high four dribbles and team-high three killer passes, compiling a complete performance that left Armas effusing praise.
“When you see that performance, that's a big player stepping up in a big way, driving the team with the football, with leadership, with quality, urging guys on,” Armas said. “He's a coach on the field, but urging guys on when their heads are going down. He's been impressive from the day I walked in the door, so this has started a few months ago. It's another guy that I'm proud of because I see a big commitment for what we're doing and he's really driving the message and then committing fully.”
Some have doubted the 33-year-old as he approaches the latter stages of a great career. But with Bradley now approaching 500 combined appearances in a professional career that's included Serie A, Eredivisie and Bundesliga stops, he’s proving that he can still contribute at a high level.
“He's a top player – I've said it weeks ago that I'm not so sure people see the talent that we have in front of us,” Armas said. “People are quick to judge and count him out, which I really appreciate that because it's just fuel. He's a winner, he's a leader. I've not coached a player with that type of leadership skills that it's just inherent and he works on it every day. He's really thoughtful of how he shows up every day and he's got a really nice balance right now of leading by example.”
When the CCL draw came out, Toronto were largely viewed as receiving the toughest fate of MLS’s five 2021 entrants. Beating a Liga MX team that’s in form and in season, all while figuring out your identity under a new coach? Wasn’t going to be easy.
But the Reds found a way, even with absences all over the pitch, progressing past the Round of 16 with galvanized energy. This small sample size of Armas’ post-New York Red Bulls days is encouraging.
Now, Toronto are tasked with carrying this momentum forward when their 2021 MLS season opens Saturday afternoon at DRV PNK Stadium against CF Montréal (2 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). Due to factors around the COVID-19 pandemic, both Canadian clubs have temporarily set up shop in Florida.
“It's a special moment for us, TFC, and our supporters back home, that they can feel part of this,” Armas said. “But now it's back to work. This is only the beginning of the season. We're so proud that we were able to put Leon in a difficult two games, home and away.
“So I'm really happy with the result. Now we have to quickly get back to work and there's more, there's more for this team. There's much more for TFC here, the young guys coming through, veterans, we're getting healthy, we're getting strong.”
Whatever comes of this game long-term, it's clear that Toronto are carrying some mojo into the 2021 season. Armas said they're going after CCL, while Mullins had a been-there-done-that vibe during his postgame availability.
"The players and this club does what it's always does, have belief in ourselves in all situations to go out and really go for the game and push for wins each night out, no matter the circumstance," Mullins said. "We prepared in the same way that we would for any other game, and just to come out with that kind of mentality, I think it's something that this club has been about and we're showing how we've reignited that mentality in continuing on to the start of this season and the Champions League campaign."