It is probably in keeping with the stop-start nature of progress as a whole, as well as the stop-start nature of progress for this league of ours, that a Tuesday night capable of producing such fun and fruition could, at the same time, create so much frustration.
Toronto FC went through to the Concacaf Champions League final, dispatching Club América by 4-2 (drawing 1-1 at the Azteca on the night), while the New York Red Bulls went home and stayed there, dominating Chivas Guadalajara but failing to score and thus losing 1-0 on aggregate.
MLS is a league capable of producing weird results, but this is true: TFC are the best team in MLS history, and so it's appropriate that they've dispatched the best team in recent Liga MX history (Tigres) and the best team in all of Liga MX history (Las Aguilas) on their way to what appears to be a date with destiny.
But as weird as MLS is, the CCL is weirder, because here's a fact: Chivas are pretty obviously the worst Liga MX team we've ever seen in the knockout round of this tournament. And somehow they've rope-a-doped their way all the way to the final.
On the night in Harrison Chivas were outshot 20-1 by an RBNY team as relentless as they were profligate. One shot is a record low for any team in CCL history – the previous record was three, held by seven different teams, most of them semi-pro. Nobody's parked the bus as thoroughly as the Goats.
Chivas cleared the ball 52 teams. Just hopeless, helpless, aimless clearances. That's the second-most in CCL history, behind only minnows Police United of Belize against Pachuca a few years back, and it speaks to how pinned into their own area they were. New York utterly, completely dominated:
The fact that they didn't advance... it's cruel, but that's the game. And the truth is that 1) RBNY have only themselves to blame, and 2) I'm sure they know it.
Obviously the question is "why and how does this keep happening to RBNY in the biggest moments?" I thought in this one it was a case of Jesse Marsch getting his personnel wrong. To me he overthought things, as his postgame presser kind of highlighted.
"Yeah, I feel like the way that we started the game was really good, and the tactics and to rotate [Bradley Wright-Phillips] underneath so that he wasn't just being marked by a center back but could find more space, and to have the guys in front of them to really be aggressive to be on the run and play behind and put them on their heels," is how Marsch explained his decision to go with what looked like a 5-2-3 but with Wright-Phillips as a sort of hybrid playmaker/striker.
There's obviously logic there, but also a flaw: Going with that formation and that personnel left Kaku Gamarra on the bench. And while Kaku hasn't been a wizard since his arrival, he's nonetheless been pretty good and has a dose of final third creativity that RBNY clearly missed over the past 180 minutes.
The other flaw is that... well, I don't mind BWP being marked by center backs! He's scored 100 goals for the Red Bulls while being marked by center backs, and clearly knows how to shake them in the box if the build-up play around him is right (which, for most of the year until this series, it had been). Get him in the box and let them try to mark him, and if he fails, so be it. Ride your best horse.
That was the strategy of Toronto, who took their shot in Leg 1's stunning 3-1 win over América at BMO Field, then came out with the exact same XI a week later at the Azteca. Their gameplan was mostly the same: They sat in what I wouldn't quite call a low block, attacked mostly with just three, and were patient about picking their chances to go forward.
Oh, and they got a monumental performance from Alex Bono:
Bono was there eight times to bail the Reds out once Club América had pushed them deep into their own 18 to defend – which they often did. Sometimes a hot goalkeeper is all the difference in the world, and sometimes when you're missing four starters (Jozy Altidore limped off injured after six minutes, joining Victor Vazquez, Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga) you're going to have to lean on that guy.
And so they did, and so it worked, and so I'll say it again: TFC are the best team in MLS history. In my eyes, and in the eyes of most long-time observers of the league, they've already cemented themselves as such.
Now all they have to do is prove it one last time.
A few notes:
- As per Paul Carr, TFC are the first MLS team to eliminate two separate Liga MX teams in a single CCL
- MLS teams are 5-3-2, +3 GD (14 goals scored and 11 conceded) against Liga MX teams this spring
- The Red Bulls, in six CCL games, conceded only three goals