Anyone who may have believed that Toronto FC's route to the first ever CONCACAF Champions League would be a cakewalk may want to think again.
Marco Velez scored on a header in the 72nd minute off a beautiful free kick by Laurent Robert as Toronto FC survived a furious first half Montreal Impact attack to finally win the first game of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship 1-0 Tuesday night.
Major League Soccer's Toronto FC grabbed an early lead over the Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps - both of the United Soccer Leagues First Division - in the Canadian qualifying tournament for the inaugural edition of the 24-team CONCACAF Champions League.
Toronto FC coach John Carver admitted he was a little surprised by the quality of the Impact's players, and he would love to see more Canadian rivals join his club in North America's top soccer league.
"Some of the opposition performed and opened up my eyes, there's not that much difference between the two leagues," Carver said. "I would love to see Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in the MLS. I think it would be fantastic."
Impact coach Nick DeSantis saw his team control the early parts of the game, generating several scoring chances and pinning Toronto FC in its own end through the early going. But a team that has been plagued with a lack of finish recently was once again left to wonder what could have happened if it was a bit more opportunistic.
"If you create those three or four chances and you put one away, the game changes because they have to open up the game, so it's frustrating that we didn't score in the first half," De Santis said. "But I think we can say we can compete with an MLS team."
Toronto's victory was not without a cost, as leading scorer Danny Dichio left the game with an injury.
Carver said Dichio aggravated a groin injury on a scoring chance late in the first half, and that it was ironic because he was about to remove Dichio from the game for tactical purposes just as he got injured.
Toronto FC took control of the match after Impact defender Stefano Pesoli was given his second yellow card and ejected in the 52nd minute following contact on Toronto forward Jeff Cunningham.
"He was faster than me and I had to try and slow him down," Pesoli said through a translator. "If I had left him alone, he was going straight in on goal."
De Santis removed Rocco Placentino, his most dangerous player on the night, in favour of defender Alex Surprenant in the 58th minute in an effort to bottle up the field and play for the draw, but the disadvantage of playing a man short was too much for Montreal to overcome.
Impact goalkeeper Matt Jordan came up with a big stop in the 69th minute, intercepting a nice ball from Toronto's Rohan Ricketts as Cunningham was charging in on goal.
But Jordan had little chance on Toronto's goal a few minutes later. Robert's left-footed free kick from just outside the top left corner of the penalty area drifted beautifully to the front of the net, where Velez had little trouble angling in his header to give Toronto a 1-0 lead.
Despite the victory, Robert was not very impressed with his side's showing.
"That was not the real Toronto FC," Robert said. "I've been here two months and I haven't seen us play that badly."
The Toronto goal cast a deathly silence over the near capacity crowd of 12,083 at Saputo Stadium, save for a small corner of the crowd made up of a travelling contingent of Toronto fans, wearing their red jerseys, waving flags and making their presence felt with loud chants throughout the match.
Those fans went delirious as the Toronto players saluted them following the goal, and they were just about the only source of noise the rest of the match.
The Impact, Toronto FC and the Whitecaps will play a series of round-robin games to determine the Canadian representative in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Canadian winner will enter a preliminary tournament at the end of August made up of the bottom 16 teams in the 24-team Champions League. There will be eight home-and-away series between those 16 clubs, with the eight winners advancing to the final group stage with the eight clubs who received a bye.
The group stage will be held from Sept. 16 to Oct. 30, the quarter-finals will be in February of 2009, the semi-finals a month later and the final will be in April of 2009.
The Impact came out as the aggressors early in the first half, but Toronto began to control more of the play as the opening half advanced, finally winding up with more quality chances but still entering halftime in a 0-0 draw.
The Impact had opportunities to open the scoring in each of the eighth, ninth and 10th minutes of play, but Impact midfielder David Testo shot well wide off a corner kick, and Placentino - playing his first game of the season - was shoved to the ground when he had a clear path to the Toronto net and he shot just wide moments later on a shot from just outside the box.
"I felt two hands on my back," Placentino said. "I faked my shot, I saw (Toronto goalkeeper Greg) Sutton was going down and I was going to push it in. I was convinced it would be a red card and a penalty shot."
It was exactly the lack of finish the Impact has displayed in being shutout in its last three USL games, with that goal drought now sitting at 367 minutes of play. Though Montreal may have had more chances, the three best ones of the first half were Toronto's. Cunningham streaked down the right side toward the Montreal goal and had Dichio alone in front, but instead elected to shoot and put it wide to the far side in the 17th minute.
Dichio had two more chances in the first half, but he saw his shot in the 28th minute cleared away by Montreal defender Patrick Leduc just before it reached the goal-line, and Jordan smothered a shot from in tight in the 40th minute.
Dichio was injured on that play and had to leave the match. He was replaced by Jarrod Smith.
Toronto was missing midfielders Maurice Edu and Amado Guevara, away playing with the U.S. and Honduras national teams, respectively.
The Impact were without injured defenders Gabriel Gervais (thigh) and Nevio Pizzolito (shoulder).
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