It’s not easy being a champion, as both Toronto FC and Tigres UANL can attest.
The two clubs were at the top of their respective worlds when they met in an epic Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal showdown back in March, a riveting clash of titans that had to be decided by the away-goals tiebreaker.
Next week, they’ll meet in much different circumstances on Wednesday when they cross swords again at TFC’s BMO Field in the inaugural edition of the Campeones Cup, the brand-new annual showcase match pitting the champs of MLS and Liga MX.
Toronto’s dramatic plummet from treble winners to Eastern Conference basement dwellers has been well documented by now. Tigres haven’t fallen quite as far as the Reds, but after winning the Liga MX Apertura, or opening phase, championship of last season, they slipped to painful defeat at the hands of their crosstown rivals – and eventual champions – Santos Laguna in the first round of the Clausura playoffs. Now they’re lodged in seventh place in the new Liga MX season after a 4-3-1 start.
And no one understands these two proud giants looking to get their respective grooves back better than ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez, who played for each club during his well-traveled career across the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
“They are still two clubs that in their respective leagues, amongst a few other clubs, are top of the food chain – the type of club that if you are a player around the league, you’d like to get to, because of all the resources they have at their disposal, the amount of money they spend on player acquisition, the hefty goals they set, the style of play, all these things,” Gomez told MLSsoccer.com this week.
Herculez Gomez played for Liga MX giants Tigres in 2014. | MexSport
Gomez, who now covers both nations in a bilingual role at ESPN, calls TFC’s operations “top-notch” in every sense, “the best setup” of any he experienced in MLS; he had similar praise for Tigres after spending the 2014 Apertura with Los Felinos.
“Say what you want about America, Cruz Azul and all these other clus that are historically more proven: Tigres is a dynasty and they’re one of the richer, if not richest, clubs in Mexico at this moment,” he noted. “They have no problem spending what they need to spend to bring in who they need to bring in … [manager] Tuca Ferretti is the Alex Ferguson of their league. They have it all. And it is definitely a destination – you might say both teams are destinations, even right now with one sitting mid-table and the other one clawing and scratching and trying to make playoffs.”
While TFC’s long-shot hopes of mounting a late run into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs may complicate their Campeones Cup preparation, Tigres face a subplot of their own. Ferretti only Thursday rejoined his club side after helming the Mexican national team on an interim basis for their stateside friendlies against Uruguay and the USMNT – and the famously irascible Brazilian had to deal with a police stop on his way to his first training session back at UANL, no less.
Gomez believes Ferretti’s El Tri absence may take a toll on Tigres.
“Tuca’s a very hands-on individual,” he said. “I played for him and there’s days in training where if he doesn’t like what’s going on, he’ll discard what his assistant coaches say, what the physical trainer says, and he does his own thing and now it’s the Tuca Show. Now it’s, ‘You weren’t working hard while we were doing this type of drill? All right, well now it’s going to be a physical training session.’
“The day-to-day, and how he maintains his relationship with the players and what he expects, it’s a very tight operation that he’s running. And him not being there, that could be the beginning of a more relaxed form of training and under Tuca, that doesn’t usually fly.”
Herculez Gomez played for Toronto FC in 2015. | USA Today Sports Images
After years of Liga MX dominance over MLS teams in CCL, Toronto’s hard-fought victory over Tigres – followed by a semifinal defeat of Club America, before their heartbreaking shootout loss to Chivas in the final – turned heads across Mexican soccer. However, Gomez believes their subsequent extended slump in league play means the Reds will have to prove themselves all over again next week.
“They made waves, I think they made themselves known,” said “Herc,” who was inundated with appearance requests during TFC’s CCL run as Mexican audiences sought to learn more about this Canadian juggernaut.
“The thing is, momentum is a funny thing, and it’s relative. For all the goodwill and great credit or equity TFC built or earned, it’s been erased with this abysmal run. So now you’re looking at a Tigres team – I think they’re in seventh place right now in the torneo regular in Mexico, which is standard for them, because they’re more of a playoff team, this is about their going rate, I would say – I get the sense that they don’t want to take TFC lightly, but they can’t help but [do so] at this point.”
Gomez points to Toronto’s plague of injuries, which combined with a nasty CCL hangover to put the Reds behind the 8-ball for most of 2018.
“The biggest one for me is, your three biggest players on the offensive end are Victor Vazquez, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco – I don’t think they’ve accumulated over 300 minutes together this season,” he said. “And it kind of snowballs into this habitual losing mentality of ‘Here we go again ...’ one week after the other and you’re trying to play catchup; eventually that becomes the norm.”
However much intrigue the two teams carry into Thursday’s clash at BMO Field, Gomez sees a large potential audience on both sides of the border for this new event, which he believes could eventually grow into something bigger, harkening back to the old days of the SuperLiga.
“It makes sense in the natural rivalry between the two leagues,” he said. “Sooner rather than later, I see a rebirth of a SuperLiga-type tournament like in the past. I think that could be beneficial because the reality is that people enjoy these games, people enjoy this rivalry.”