TORONTO - A little man and a hard man took centre stage for Toronto FC on Wednesday night.
Diminutive Ecuadorian teenager Joao Plata scored both goals after coming off the bench to give Toronto FC a 2-1 win over Real Esteli of Nicaragua in CONCACAF Champions League preliminary-round play.
And hard-nose midfielder Torsten Frings took over the captain's armband for Toronto, formally marking the leadership he had shown in his first two games for the MLS side.
"He's a born leader," coach Aron Winter said of the 34-year-old Frings.
The German veteran, whose 92 yellow cards in the Bundesliga are third most in league history, said he was happy to accept the responsibility as skipper.
Striker Maicon Santos, who was named captain earlier this season after Dwayne De Rosario was traded away, has fallen out of favour of late. And goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who has worn the armband in Santos' absence, is unlikely to object to Frings taking over the team.
Asked if it was a permanent move, Winter said: "Yes, it's possible. I think that he could be a very good captain."
Coming on in the 49th minute, Plata rescued a game in which Toronto had a hard time converting its dominance into goals.
Plata's slashing runs began to stretch the Esteli backline and the little man opened the scoring in the 56th minute by scooting inside two defenders deep in the box — after tracking down an errant clearance — and then poking the ball in from close range.
Plata then bent in a glorious free kick from 25 yards out in the 72nd minute after managing to convince Frings and Ryan Johnson to let him take the kick.
"Thank God it went in," Plata, speaking through an interpreter, said with a smile.
At five foot three, Plata is often little taller than some of the kids who come out hand in hand with the Toronto FC starters. Winter says Plata, as a young player, has highs and lows but he has given the rookie plenty of chances this season.
And Plata, who already has two goals in MLS play this season, paid him back Wednesday.
The celebrations soured somewhat when substitute Alesando Calero pulled back a valuable away goal in the 80th minute after a handling error from 'keeper Milos Kocic to the right of his post gave the Esteli player a free shot at an unguarded goal.
Toronto visits Esteli's Estadio Independencia next Tuesday in the second leg of the series.
Esteli coach Otoniel Olivas, speaking through an interpreter, said his players were not used to playing on a surface as pristine as that of BMO Field.
"This could prove to be an advantage next week for (my) players," he said, adding 2-1 was not a bad result considering the away goal.
Toronto outshot Esteli 22-7 (9-3 in shots on target) and dominated possession before a sparse crowd of 9.,241.
"If we were sharp, we could have won easily 4-0 or 5-0," said Winter.
Winter, assistant coach Bob de Klerk and Frei, who was given the night off, were among the first to console Kocic — who was making his first appearance of the season — after the game.
"He was upset, you could see that," Winter said.
The coach said he put his arm around him and said: "That's football."
Kocic was still feeling the pain when reporters reached him after the game.
"I just want to apologize to the fans and my teammates for the mistake," he said. "But mistakes happen, it's sport.
"I'm down right now but I will not be down tomorrow. I have to keep my head up and work hard and make sure this thing doesn't happen next time."
It was one-way traffic in the first half with the home side having 66 per cent of the possession. But Toronto failed to finish, putting just two shots on target, despite Nick Soolsma and Johnson ripping open the Esteli defence.
Esteli, meanwhile, sat back and looked to counter.
There were starts for four Canadians: 18-year-old Doneil Henry and 20-year-old Ashtone Morgan in defence and 18-year-old Matt Stinson and 24-year-old Gianluca Zavarise in midfield.
Frings and fellow newcomers Johnson, Andy Iro, and Danny Koevermans retained their place in the lineup for the third straight game since joining the club.
Toronto (3-11-9 in MLS play) has lost four straight in the league since defeating Vancouver 2-1 on July 2 in Nutrilite Canadian Championship play.
Wednesday's game was the third in a week for Toronto FC, who face three more over the next 10 days with trips to Portland and Nicaragua on the itinerary. The scheduling logjam followed 11 days off earlier in the month.
The winner of the CONCACAF home-and-away series moves into the group stage of the tournament, joining Mexico's Pumas, Panama's Tauro and either FC Dallas or El Salvador's Alianza in Group C.