VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Whitecaps will be heading into the tiger’s den on Tuesday evening when they head to Mexico to take on Tigres UANL in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal (10 pm ET | Galavision, Facebook.com).
Few will give Vancouver much of a chance against the defending Liga MX Apertura champions, especially given their winless start to MLS play, but that’s just how ‘Caps coach Carl Robinson likes it and he’s relishing the prospect of squaring off with the Mexican giants.
"I like proving people wrong," Robinson said. "It's going to be a massive game. A real difficult game against a top quality team. As I say to my players, you want to perform every day and challenge yourself against the best players. Now we get the opportunity over two legs. We won't be scared. We'll be fully focused. We'll be organized."
Managed by veteran Brazilian coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti, Tigres endured a rough start to the current Liga MX Clausura season, but have rebounded with seven points in their last three games to sit 12th place in the table. The uneven start provides Vancouver with a glimpse of vulnerability in Tigres' armor, but with top players like the ever-dangerous French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac in their line-up, Robinson is fully aware of the task ahead of his young squad.
"No one will give us a chance because they have world class players and a world class coach," Robinson said. "Great. FA Cup ties bring up shocks now and again, so we'll just go and look forward to it. Top players are top players for a reason, but we've got some exciting young players here. We've got some top players as well.
"It goes down to fine margins. It's a great opportunity for the club. We made history by qualifying for the Champions League. Then it was the quarterfinals, now it's the semifinals, so why not? Someone's got to get through, so why not [us]? We'll be underdogs, but we'll be up for the challenge."
Making history has been driving Vancouver for their whole campaign. They’re now a pair of two-legged ties away from becoming the first MLS club to win the competition, but history also doesn’t cast a favorable light on the Whitecaps' chances.
Only two MLS teams have advanced against Mexican sides in the Champions League knockout stages over nine seasons. Seattle did it against Tigres in 2013 and Montreal against Pachuca in 2015, but can the ‘Caps learn anything from those previous exploits?
"I don't think you can take too much from it," Robinson mused. "I spoke to [former Montreal coach] Frankie Klopas about certain things that he decided to do. There are tendencies I find, a lot of strong points, and areas that I feel we can try and exploit of their teams, irrelevant if we're a Canadian or an American team.
"I don't think it really matters. We just have to play to our levels. If it works, then we've got a chance of getting something out of the game. Organization and discipline will be the key thing."