Toronto FC will enter this year's CONCACAF Champions League in their customary state of disarray. Head coach Aron Winter has of late one-upped the frenzied wheeling and dealing tradition set at the club by former GM Mo Johnston, the fans are justifiably growing short of patience, and the Reds haven't beaten anyone aside from the lowly Vancouver Whitecaps since May 7th. In other words, history is repeating itself.
Despite all that, Toronto has a chance to give themselves some positive momentum in the CCL. The draw for the qualifying round gave them arguably the easiest path to the group stage of anyone. Considering the fact that they could have drawn Honduran powerhouse Olimpia, Guatemala's Municipal, or the giant-killing Puerto Rico Islanders, drawing Real Esteli of Nicaragua was a tremendous let-off for a club that is usually unlucky.
This is not an attempt to disrespect Esteli, but Nicaraguan soccer is not exactly known for producing talent. Amongst Central American nations, their national team is generally only better than Belize. Even by CONCACAF standards, their club sides are minnows.
As a result of this, Toronto should look to finish this tie up in the first leg at BMO Field. Anything less than a big win would be a big disappointment, and a large lead would allow Winter to leave some big names home for the arduous (read: non-direct flight followed by 3+ hour bus ride) trip to Esteli's Estadio Independencia. TFC has a reputation of making easy things complicated for themselves, but there's no good reason that this should be one of them. Failure to qualify for Group C would be a bigger letdown than MLS's previous CCL low mark (the New England Revolution being demolished 6-1 by Joe Public FC of Trinidad & Tobago).
Assuming they get through to the group stage, things get much tougher. The top seed and heavy favorite in Group C is Pumas UNAM, winners of the most recent Mexican championship. Pumas will pose a very difficult challenge for the defensively-challenged Reds thanks to a group of forwards that include the elusive Juan Carlos Cacho and starlet Javier Cortes. Their defense is marshaled by Dario Veron, who you may have seen starting for Paraguay in the just-completed Copa America.
TFC's weakest opponent in the group will likely be Tauro FC of Panama, whose last run-in with an MLS club saw them upset Chivas USA in the 2008-2009 qualifying round. Still, "weakest" does not automatically mean "weak." While Toronto should be able to take 3-4 points from Tauro, they have plenty of talent. Tricky attacker Victor Mendieta and striker Temistocles Perez will present a threat to Stefan Frei's goal, while the defense will feature Luis Moreno, a veteran of the Panamanian national team. Moreno is probably more famous as the guy that kicked a stunned owl - which later died as a result - last year while playing in Colombia than he is for his actual play. At least Toronto fans won't have to figure out who to jeer when Tauro comes to town.
The other qualifiers to Group C will likely be FC Dallas, who are strong bets to advance over Alianza of El Salvador. Any MLS observer will note the gulf in class between Schellas Hyndman's side and Toronto, but one bit of good news for the Reds is that they'll have a familiar opponent. This opens the door to TFC springing the odd upset - MLS is full of strange mid-season results - or Dallas simply getting overconfident against a team they have every reason to look down on. Against a similarly high-flying MLS opponent last year, TFC managed a 1-1 home draw with Real Salt Lake; to advance this time, they'll probably have to turn that into a win.
Toronto's best CCL moment by far, and arguably their biggest win in club history, was last year's CCL triumph over Cruz Azul. Duplicating that win, and avoiding home-and-away losses to Dallas, will likely be required if TFC has designs on getting out of a group that features two indisputably stronger teams. It's going to take TFC's very best to make that happen; if Toronto opts to rest players in what will likely be a quixotic chase for an MLS playoff spot, they're going to struggle mightily.
One key factor will be when TFC gets to play at home. If they get to play their home games against Pumas and Tauro later in the schedule (the last four rounds are in the last 3 weeks of September and then one in mid-October), there's a chance that cold weather could play in their favor. It might seem like a stretch, but Toronto will likely need every break they can get to advance.