TORONTO – The Concacaf Champions League is a tricky beast, especially in the early rounds.
Never mind that for MLS sides these are the first competitive matches of the season, while most other teams in the competition are in-season, but then teams either runs into a giant of the region, a club from Mexico, one of the big boys from Central America, or some relatively-unknown opponent on whom information can be scarce.
Regardless which way the path lies, there will be complications.
For Toronto FC, their round-of-16 tie sees them pitted against Independiente de La Chorrera, tournament debutants who earned their shot at a place in the Champions League by winning the 2018 Panamanian Clausura – their first top-flight championship in over 30 years of competition.
Where traditional Panamanian heavyweights Árabe Unido, Tauro FC, and San Francisco FC are somewhat familiar, Independiente are less so.
“Not a ton at the moment,” replied TFC's Michael Bradley on Friday when asked what he could say about the opponent. “It's a team that plays in a tight little stadium, on turf, conditions will be warm, very warm. And it will be a team that is organized, that is looking to use its speed, aggressiveness, and athleticism on the counter in certain moments.
“There has been a little initial discussion about them, how they play,” explained Bradley. “Over the next few days, we'll start to look closer in terms of video.”
TFC flew into Panama City this weekend and travelled by land to La Chorrera, where preparation continued for Tuesday's first leg (8 pm ET | YahooSports.com) at the Estadio Agustin Sanchez, a ground which has a capacity of a little over three thousand. The second leg is set for BMO Field a week later.
TFC head coach Greg Vanney provided some more detail on what to expect from the Panamanians: “What has made them successful is they're organized; fairly aggressive defensively. They're very quick on the counterattack, can win the ball and break out – a lot of their goals come off of transition play. They're decent in the set-piece category, have a few that we've seen from there. They're a dangerous team.”
“[And] the conditions are not easy,” continued Vanney. “We'll go and play on turf. Based on what I've seen the turf is not great, which tends to lead towards turnovers when you least expect [them].
“We've got to make sure we're protecting ourselves for transition moments,” added Vanney. “We have to be smart, be savvy about how we go about things; we've got to deal with the conditions, but still play the way we want to play, that is going to make us successful.”
Even if the opponent is new, playing in Central America comes with a well-defined reputation.
“I expect a tough game, no matter what,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio. “The conditions won't be something that we're accustomed to, weather-wise. I don't know how the pitch is going to be. Going to these places is always tough. We'll have to deal with that the best we can, not let that affect us.”
Having reached the final last time around through a gauntlet of the three Mexican sides, Toronto have adopted a slightly different approach this time around, best summed up as, "One series at a time." And though TFC will be favored to move on to the quarterfinals, that does not mean they will be looking past the Panamanians.
“Nobody is under any illusions that this is going to be easy,” stressed Bradley. “It's early in our season, going there, playing on an unknown surface in hot weather. It's going to be a real challenge, but we're excited for it.”