Toronto FC goes into Wednesday's rematch with Mexico's Club Leon boosted by its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations but still feeling the effects of more mundane soccer injuries.
TFC tied 1-1 in Leon last week in the first leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 tie, meaning it has a valuable away goal in its back pocket.
There was another reason to celebrate, with the MLS team posting footage Monday of players getting their COVID-19 vaccinations in Florida.
"I felt the same as some of the players, saying 'It's surreal,'" said head coach Chris Armas, who has had his first shot. "That's the word that was used by a few guys. All this talk, all that's going on, I feel like already I'm more protected against the virus. And physically they are — right away the body starts preparing.
"Even mentally, you stand a little taller … It's a positive that now we're feeling a little more protected and we ultimately protect others out there as things return back to normal."
But there are still more questions than answers about the health of TFC's injury-riddled squad going into the game at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Fla.
"We're banged up," said GM Ali Curtis.
"But I think we're in a better position down here in Florida than we were in Leon," he added. "So we feel good about our chances."
Armas, who normally likes to keep his cards close to his chest, revealed that Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo will likely be absent again despite some injury improvements.
"The guys that have been injured are slowly coming off that list. So we think we're getting stronger each day," he said. "And even stronger tactically."
Toronto, playing its first competitive match since Nov. 24, managed the first-leg draw despite missing Pozuelo, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, defenders Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow and midfielders Jonathan Osorio and Nick DeLeon.
Star striker Jozy Altidore and substitute winger Erickson Gallardo both had to leave the game due to injury.
Armas said most of the walking wounded, including Altidore and Osorio, are considered day-to-day.
"We're just trying to balance out the risk to reward (ratio) … The question is do we use them for this match with what's at stake," he said.
"No excuses here. We are ready and we have enough," he added.
The hope is Morrow and winger Tsubasa Endoh may be healthy enough to dress Wednesday. Given Altidore's history of hamstring issues, it would be a surprise if he saw action.
The club said last week that Pozuelo had stayed in Florida to have a mild strain re-evaluated. DeLeon was a game-day decision. Westberg was late joining camp for personal reasons.
Armas seemed to suggest Alex Bono would start in goal again, citing his play in the first leg. Asked if he had settled on a No. 1 'keeper, Armas said "Well no. We have two. We have two No. 1s."
Armas turned to his youth in the first leg, giving starts to 18-year-old Ralph Priso and 20-year-old Noble Okello in midfield with 21-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg on the wing. The Toronto 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.
"You'll see the young players out there again," Armas said. "We believe in them. They're good players."
Singh, who made his first-team debut last week in Mexico, was signed to another short-term deal Tuesday to make his available for the rematch.
A brilliant 25th-minute volley by Leon's Fernando Navarro was cancelled out by an Andres Mosquera own goal in the 50th minute last week. Toronto withstood a late Leon charge to preserve the tie.
"We came out of that match with momentum, internal belief … For us this is a final. And we'll approach it that way," Armas said of Wednesday's match.
Leon will be boosted by the return of influential captain Luis Montes, who was suspended for the first leg after being sent off in last year's competition against Los Angeles FC.
There is some talk that Leon forward Joel Campbell may not be available due to quarantine issues resulting from recent international duty with Costa Rica.
After a slow start that saw Leon win just two of its first 10 league matches (2-6-2) this year, the Mexican side has returned to form. Leon defeated Atlas 3-1 Saturday and currently stands seventh in the standings at 6-6-2.
TFC opens the MLS season Saturday against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It's been a chaotic pre-season for TFC. The club had to endure a lockdown in Toronto due to nine cases of COVID-19, delaying work at camp. It then had to move its training base to Florida, where is had just two pre-season friendlies.
"It hasn't been ideal but we're managing, best we can with it," said Curtis.
The TFC-Leon winner will face either Mexico's Cruz Azul or Haiti's Arcahaie FC in the quarterfinals. The Haitian side held the Mexican league leaders to a surprise scoreless tie last week with the second leg set for Tuesday night in Mexico City.
Leon won the Liga MX Guardianes title — named in honour of Mexico's health-care workers — in December, defeating Pumas UNAM 3-1 on aggregate after a 12-1-4 campaign.
The Champions League winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup against other confederation champions.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2021