The best team in MLS history just keeps getting better.
Toronto FC didn’t sneak past Tigres and Club America on the way to the Concacaf Champions League final. They didn’t become first club in the history of this league to knock off two Liga MX opponents in the same tournament by the skin of their teeth. No, in both cases, the Reds were the better team over two legs: Better tactically. Better technically. Better coached.
Their reward is something no other CCL finalist hailing from MLS – only Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) have gotten this far – has been able to say. Next Tuesday, when Chivas Guadalajara come to BMO Field for the first leg of the final, the Reds will be the clear and obvious favorites. It’s not only a series they can win, it’s one they should win.
That’s a testament to what general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, head coach Greg Vanney and every player -- from Sebastian Giovinco to the last name on the roster -- have built. It’s something to acknowledge, but it’s not something to celebrate. Not yet anyway. That would be premature, given MLS’s history in this competition.
The job is not done. And nobody knows that better than Toronto FC. The other shoe is still waiting to drop, as it has in every iteration of the CCL’s current era, which began in 2008 and has seen a Liga MX team win the tournament without exception.
Chivas may be mediocre compared to Tigres or America, but they’re not inept. Just ask the Seattle Sounders or the New York Red Bulls, who utterly dominated the Goats on Tuesday but couldn’t score the all-important goal (or two) that would have made the final an all-MLS affair and guaranteed a spot in the Club World Cup.
What if Chivas spoil the coronation we all hope for and, frankly, expect? That much-coveted place on the world stage in the United Arab Emirates could go up in smoke. It took the league’s best-ever team to do this, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say no other team in the league could be expected to replicate what they’ve accomplished thus far. Just look at their peers for proof.
Colorado Rapids were the Reds’ first casualty, in the Round of 16, as FC Dallas crashed out against Tauro FC, currently fifth in the Panamanian league. The Sounders, coming off back-to-back MLS Cup finals, fell flat against Chivas despite plenty of previous CCL experience. Then a much-fancied Red Bulls side who’d already brushed aside Club Tijuana held Chivas to a historically impotent offensive performance in the second leg of their semifinal. Only they couldn't find enough attacking incisiveness themselves, and were left to rue Bradley Wright-Phillips wasting a golden opportunity toward the end of the first leg in Mexico.
Toronto FC are better than Colorado, better than Dallas, better than Seattle, better than New York, better than Chivas. Logic says they will show their considerable quality over two legs and lift the cup, that the Reds will become both the first MLS team to capture a treble and a CCL title. Only logic has nothing to do with it. Being better didn’t work for the Red Bulls, did it?
Greg Vanney has some questions to answer, and little time to do so before Tuesday.
Jozy Altidore, for my money the most dominant forward in the competition so far and one whose presence was clearly missed at Azteca, limped off in the seventh minute in Mexico City. Gregory van der Weil, who’s ably plugged holes in central defense and right back, did the same at halftime. Will either be 100 percent in a week’s time?
What about the injury status of Chris Mavinga and 2017 Best XI performers Victor Vazquez and Justin Morrow? Or the yellow-card accumulation looming for Giovinco, Altidore, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio or Drew Moor? Each is one caution away from suspension in a tournament that doesn’t wipe the slate clean before the final. Toronto relied on their formidable depth to get to this point – again, what other MLS club could do so against Tigres and America and come out on top? – but will it hold up for yet another high-stakes series?
The good news is that playing the first leg at BMO Field is a clear advantage. Should Toronto grab a multi-goal win against a Chivas side that was battered and shut out at Red Bull Arena, suffocating pressure will be waiting for the Goats at Estadio Akron. Should that happen, there’s no reason to believe Chivas have the quality or mental fortitude to turn it around given their league and CCL form.
All of which is to say what we already know: Toronto FC are the favorites to win this tournament. If they’re crowned champions on April 25 in Guadalajara, their place in MLS and Concacaf history will be unimpeachable. It would change lives. It would change this league.
But it hasn’t happened yet. Favorites or not, what I wrote a month ago still holds true: It doesn't mean anything unless you win the whole thing.