The best jokes contain more than a kernel of truth. If I’m being honest, ExtraTime Radio’s CCL Bingo mantra isn’t all that funny anymore. Free space is disappointment, and the truth hurts.
I wish I was joking when I say it appears Toronto FC’s Concacaf Champions League fate is trending toward the all-too-familiar gut punch yet again, but alas Tuesday turned to Wednesday and the pit is still lodged in my stomach. Chivas de Guadalajara went to BMO Field and grabbed a pair of away goals in a 2-1 win that flips the favorite label back to Liga MX just as we were all starting to believe Mexico’s hegemony was close to crumbling.
There’s always a caveat for MLS in this competition. This year, in order:
“FC Dallas were the clear favorites, but …”
“Seattle got a result in leg one, but …”
“Red Bulls were the better team, but …”
There’s a reason I’ve written the same column twice during Toronto FC’s run to the final. All this hype, all this hope, all this hot air doesn’t amount to much if the Reds don’t win the whole thing. Now, a golden opportunity at home wasted, the final is on Chivas’ terms ahead of next week’s second leg at Estadio Akron.
Toronto were supposed to be the team that changed the course of history. This is, after all, the best team MLS has ever produced. The Reds had already summited the mountain twice, eliminating Tigres and Club America, and Chivas were the next Liga MX giant primed to have the beanstalk hacked out from underneath them.
It only gets harder from here. The margin is not insurmountable – even if those away goals are killer – but Toronto are going to have to buck their own history as well as the league’s collective past to get over the hump and go down as legends.
First, the bad news…
The Goats were missing three starters thanks to suspension – captain Jair Pereira, goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota and left back Edwin Hernandez – and all three will return to Matias Almeyda’s starting XI next week with a first-ever CCL title for Mexico’s most supported club within grasp. This is Chivas’ season. They’re at the bottom of the league. They’ll do anything to win.
Outside of a 2-1 result that mirrors what Chivas did at BMO, Greg Vanney’s team will need a multi-goal win to lift the cup. Toronto FC may have knocked off Tigres and Club América to get here, but they didn’t win in Mexico during this run, losing 3-2 at El Volcan and drawing 1-1 at Azteca. In four previous tries, they drew once and lost three times (11 GA, 2 GF).
Liga MX teams have won 21 of 23 CCL knockout-round series in which the second and decisive leg was played at home, and no MLS side has won the second leg. Toronto broke the league’s long-standing o-fer in the quarterfinals and semis, as the Red Bulls were making history by becoming the first to win a knockout round match in Mexico, but the Reds are entering uncharted territory when it matters most.
Toronto FC will have to do what no MLS team has done before in order to win the tournament no MLS team has won before. History and the odds are stacked against them.
Now, the good news…
Toronto FC are still the best team in MLS history. If anyone can do it, it’s this group. They fell asleep on a throw-in, allowed a goal via howler in the first leg, didn’t finish their chances and were denied a clear penalty. Chivas didn’t sit back as they did at Red Bull Arena, but they also weren’t beating Alex Bono’s door down. It’s not out of the question that they’ll eliminate the mistakes, score multiple goals and bag a shutout in Guadalajara.
Chivas are not what most would call a good (or even average) home team. During the 2017 Apertura and 2018 Clausura, the Goats have, incredibly, just one win at Estadio Akron in 16 games (1-7-8). That’s putrid, but it hasn’t extended to CCL, where they have three wins in three games by a cumulative score of 9-0. Still, this will be arguably the least challenging away environment Toronto has seen this tournament, given Colorado was basically an ice rink.
Vanney and his staff have a week to mull over the tactical side of the match. Almeyda won the first 25 minutes on Tuesday before the TFC boss adjusted to a 4-4-2 that opened things up for the home team. Will Chivas boss sit back and absorb pressure like at Red Bull Arena? Will they patiently wait to pile it on as they did against the Sounders? How will they try to disrupt Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco?
Toronto FC can do this, even if they no longer should.
Will they? It’s not probable, but it’s possible. Leg one may have been a relative disaster, but they avoided costly yellow-card suspensions, Giovinco and Altidore are still the best attacking players on either team and underdog status may actually suit the Reds better than being favorites did.
If it doesn't, prepare yourself for yet another year, all jokes aside, where #CCLFever breaks in disappointment.