Toluca scored twice before the break but Steven Lenhart countered in the second half to lead the Crew to a 2-2 tie in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series on Tuesday.
The Crew still face a daunting task in the return match of the two-game, total-goal series March 17 at Toluca because away goals count in the tiebreaker. MLS teams have lost 10 of 11 knockout series to Mexican clubs in the competition.
Lenhart cut the deficit to 2-1 in the 66th minute then nailed the equalizer in the 84th off an assist from recently subbed in Emilio Rentería.
Both of Lenhart’s goals were from 13 yards on the right side of the box. The first went high and the second low to the back of the netting to cap the rally.
Columbus had large chunks of the possession but one good counter and a brilliant shot from a broken play gave Toluca the halftime lead on goals by Antonio “Zinha” Naelson in the 19th minute and Antonio Ríos in the 45th.
Lenhart put the Crew on the board with an exquisite strike moments after the second skirmish of the second half that had players nose-to-nose before cooler heads prevailed.
Toluca was cruising until the golden-mopped Lenhart took a cross from Emmanuel Ekpo with his back toward to the goal. Lenhart chested the ball then sent a volley to the back of the net past stunned goalkeeper Alfedo Talavera.
Toluca is the current full-season champion in Mexico while the Crew had the best regular-season record in MLS the past two seasons but were no match for the game-tested Diablos Rojos, who are nine games (2-2-5) into their season. Columbus went 5-0-3 in its preseason schedule in Arizona and Florida.
The Crew were missing defenders Chad Marshall (hamstring) and Jed Zayner (knee) as well as suspended midfielders Guillermo Barros Schelotto – the Crew’s top scorer last season with 14 goals – and U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk. The latter two will be eligible for the second leg.
Still, Columbus had a veteran lineup beginning with goalkeeper William Hesmer. Midfielder Dilly Duka, the eight pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, was the only rookie to dress for the Crew but he didn’t play, nor did recently acquired Colombian forward Sergio Herrera.
Toluca started five players who had not played in a Mexican league match this season but did use first-team keeper Talavera. However, top goal producer Héctor Mancilla sat on the bench.
After a long feeling out period, Toluca struck first. Zinha took a one-touch pass from Raúl Nava heading into the final third to create an odd-man attack. Zinha moved into the box and used Danny O’Rourke as a screen to drive the ball into the lower left netting past diving goalkeeper William Hesmer.
Adam Moffat went for the equalizer seven minutes later only to have his shot from 28 yards skitter past the right post by a foot. Moffat also drilled a ball from 35 yards in the 32nd minute that Talavera knocked away with his right hand as the shot was headed inside the left pipe.
The Crew continued to press, especially with the swift Robbie Rogers exploiting the left flank. In the 38th minute, he cut left to right through traffic and laid a ball off to Eddie Gaven at the top of the penalty area but Gaven’s open strike was nowhere near the goal.
A miss like that often comes back to haunt a team and the Crew felt the sting in the 45th minute when Vladimir Marín sent a cross into the goal area where Crew defender Eric Brunner and Nava went up for the challenge. Brunner got the better of the aerial battle but the ball was cleared to the right foot of Ríos. He stepped into the ball and blasted a rising shot from 25 yards.
Rogers was denied by Talavera in the opening minutes of the second half but the game quickly turned heated with the Crew’s Danny O’Rourke and Marin earning cautions in the 64th minute.
Weather was not the factor the Crew had hoped it would be. Instead of subfreezing weather for the visitors from Mexico, the kickoff temperature was 55 degrees and there were few remnants of the 20-inch snow depth that blanketed Columbus last week.
The Champions League is a tournament for 24 clubs from regions representing North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Two quarterfinal series begin Wednesday with Pumas UNAM of Mexico at Honduras' Marathón and Mexico’s Pachuca at Guatemala's Comunicaciones. Cruz Azul of Mexico hosts Panama's Árabe Unido on Thursday.