A year ago, Toronto FC nearly won Concacaf Champions League, but its run may be over before it can even get started after a stunning opener in Panama on a night when Houston won thanks to a goal from an unlikely source.
The 2019 Concacaf Champions League kicked off Tuesday night with a fresh reminder that nothing, especially in Concacaf, is ever truly straightforward.
Toronto FC, who defeated two of Mexico's best sides and nearly bested a third to win it all a season ago, suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat against a Panamanian side, Club Atletico Independiente, making its CCL debut in the first leg of their round-of-16 battle.
Another powerhouse, Mexico's Tigres UANL, also suffered an early setback, though a much more manageable one in a 1-0 defeat at Costa Rican stalwart Saprissa.
The night was capped by the Houston Dynamo's 1-0 win in Guatemala, with DaMarcus Beasley's late winner and crucial away goal securing the result over Guastatoya.
Here's a closer look at opening night in the CCL:
TFC an absolute wreck
The failures of 2018 may not have been an anomaly for TFC after all. There's the yearly caveat of it still being preseason time for MLS clubs, but that's little excuse for failing to be ready for CCL–this club, especially. And when things went haywire, not having the wherewithal to shut the game down and keep the deficit workable heading home for the second leg is simply malpractice.
Much has changed for Toronto in the offseason, with Sebastian Giovinco departing for Saudi Arabia and GM Tim Bezbatchenko leaving for Columbus, but the talent, on paper, is still good–good enough to get a result in Panama, anyway. But the evidence would dictate otherwise. Newly acquired center back Laurent Ciman, who was so key for the Montreal Impact and LAFC before leaving for Dijon in France, looked awful in his TFC debut, which doesn't bode well for the season ahead given the importance of his acquisition.
Great strike by Omar Browne for #CAIPanama's 2nd goal, but terrible defending again by Laurent Ciman. Inexplicable why a veteran defender with his experience would go to ground there. He's been directly at fault for 2 goals in his debut tonight.#CAIvTOR #TFCLive #CCL #SCCL2019 pic.twitter.com/uhZzHhbvZw— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) February 20, 2019
TFC's XI was a first-choice unit up until the front line, and that's where you can see how things went south. Whereas it was Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez running the attack a season ago, Tuesday night it was new signing Terrence Boyd, rookie Griffin Dorsey and career-long defender Justin Morrow trying to make things happen in the final third.
That TFC carried 70.5% of the possession but failed to put a single shot on target–including Boyd's penalty kick that sailed well over the crossbar–is another headscratching takeaway from a night that all but seals the Reds' continental fate nice and early.
If there's a silver lining, it's that it doesn't appear TFC will have to dedicate its time, energy and resources to another deep CCL run and can focus on getting things right from the start in MLS play. Given TFC has a trophy case built to fill after an eventual CCL triumph, though, it's not likely that silver lining will be met with widespread acceptance at BMO Field.
The ageless Beasley sparks Houston
The year is 2042. The World Cup has 96 teams and is staged across six continents. DaMarcus Beasley lines up at left back for the USA. Or something like that.
Beasley, the 36-year-old marvel, ensured Houston went home with the advantage over its Guatemalan counterpart with an oddity for him–a long-range, right-footed strike that secured a 1-0 win. He drove an 84th-minute strike through traffic after a corner kick wasn't fully cleared, marking his first goal in an international club competition in over a decade.
Needless to say, U.S. Soccer Twitter was happy to piggyback on the fun:
I’ll never make fun of your age again, grandpa. 😘— AJ DeLaGarza (@AJD_20) February 20, 2019
tricky beas.... with the right foot?!?! 🤯🤯🤯— Stu Holden (@stuholden) February 20, 2019
Houston isn't out of the woods yet, but going home with an away goal and an aggregate lead bodes well for Wilmer Cabrera's side.
Tigres, perhaps the favorite to win it all, will have work to do in its home leg after a 1-0 defeat in Costa Rica. Johan Venegas's six-yard header off a short-corner routine in the 73rd minute was the difference, and Saprissa's defense was able to keep Tuca Ferretti's explosive side from scoring any away goals to secure the result it desired.
The question is if the one-goal win will be enough, and as most clubs have found when facing Tigres in Mexico, that answer is probably "no." Andre-Pierre Gignac didn't feature for Tigres as he recovered from a minor injury, and the Mexican giant may need its French striker after all if it's to avoid a second straight early exit while featuring arguably the greatest collection of talent in the entire region.