A draw on the road and a vaccination: Two shots in the arm for TFC ahead of Club Leon rematch

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Toronto FC got a real shot in the arm this week ahead of Wednesday night’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal match against Club Leon.

No, star attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo will likely not be available for the second leg of the series at ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando (Toronto’s ‘home’ match). The MLS MVP did not play in last Wednesday’s game in Leon, Mexico, a 1-1 draw.

It seems veteran forward Jozy Altidore will also be a scratch for the second game. Probably a few other veteran players will be unavailable as well.

The shot in the arm was literally that.

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Earlier this week, TFC players got their first COVID-19 vaccinations at the club’s training camp in Orlando, which coach Chris Armas called a big boost psychologically.

“Mentally you just stand a little taller and feel a little protected,” Armas said of the shots. “(The guys) are just feeling a little bit more secure. It gives you a little more comfort.”

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The Reds are also feeling some comfort in the fact that they managed to get a draw and an away goal (an own goal by Leon) last Wednesday. There were blocks of time last week when Leon out-played Toronto, though to get a draw with so many players out and a pre-season camp that was cut short by a COVID-19 breakout back in Toronto certainly was an accomplishment, one that has the club feeling good about its chances tonight.

“We are ready and we have enough,” Armas said. “We’re stepping on the field, throwing everything at Leon, with a plan, with a togetherness and we’re going after a victory.”

Armas admitted that his club is still “a little banged” up. Altidore, who has struggled to stay on the field the past couple of seasons because of injuries, left last week’s match after tweaking his hamstring or thigh. He underwent an MRI this week and a TFC official said the result “came back very good, just a bit inflamed” adding that the club’s second all-time leading scorer is day to day.

Pozuelo is likely unavailable for the second leg against Leon. Centre back Chris Mavinga is also rehabbing and did not play last Wednesday, nor did veterans Justin Morrow, Nick DeLeon, Jonathan Osorio, Quentin Westberg and Tsubasa Endoh.

“Most of those guys, specifically Jozy and Oso, they’re day to day,” Armas said. “We’re trying to balance out the risk to reward. But Pierre (Barrieu, director of high performance) and Steven Haines and Fabian (Casal, of the strength and conditioning department), they’re getting guys returning to play and ready to go. They’re doing a lot on the field right now and the question is, do we use them for this match with what’s at stake?

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“I think we’ll have some good options. But I will tell you that each day we feel like we’re getting stronger.”

Armas has more than the second leg of the Leon series to consider. On Saturday, the Reds open their MLS regular season against 401 Derby rival CF Montreal at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (Montreal’s temporary home park) and Armas has to figure out a way to have the best possible starting XI ready for both games. The hope is Pozuelo and other veterans will be ready for Montreal.

In the meantime, Armas said TFC will see a number of the club’s young players start on the field again against Leon.

Last week, the coach started midfielders Ralph Priso (18) and Noble Okello (20) as well as 21-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg on the wing. The bench included 20-year-old Jordan Perruzza, 22-year-old Griffin Dorsey and 20-year-old Luke Singh, a TFC 2 defender signed to a short-term deal ahead of the match.

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“We believe in them,” Armas said. “Our young guys went after it fearlessly, and our older players carried their weight, and then some.

“We came out of that match with momentum, internal belief — belief in what we are all doing here, how we want to play,” the coach added. “We knew we would get tested in a big way on many levels. We were pushed hard, but we passed the test and we understand that we can be dangerous by being together and on the front foot. I do think coming out of that match (in Leon) that there’s more belief in what we’re doing.”

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Forward Joel Campbell, arguably Leon’s best player in the first game, reportedly will not be available to face TFC as the Costa Rican international played in Europe less than 14 days ago and therefore is not admissible into the U.S., though Leon will have captain Luis Montes back. Montes missed last week’s game serving a suspension.

No matter who starts, the Reds know they face a considerable challenge against the defending Mexican league champions.

“Does the away goal help? Of course (but) it doesn’t change anything,” TFC fullback Richie Laryea said. “They do a good job of switching the point of attack on teams and try to kind of catch you napping or sleeping on some plays. So they can execute off it. We have to go out there and execute.”

The Reds almost scored in the first minute of last week’s match and forced an own goal by Leon later as a result of aggressive play and pressing. Armas said that will be the game plan again.

“As we are getting fitter and stronger, our mentality will be to be aggressive. I don’t think it’s a secret. We have a mind-set of forcing mistakes,” Armas said. “Who we are and who we are becoming will not change. We’re going to throw everything at it. This is a final, and we’ll approach it that way.”

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