It’s a matchup worthy of a championship final, but it’s happening in the second round of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League.
Thanks to their series-clinching home results on Tuesday night, MLS Cup holders Toronto FC will meet Liga MX champs Tigres UANL in the CCL quarterfinals starting next week.
The clash of champions opens at TFC’s BMO Field on March 7. The tournament regulations establish that the winners of the four odd-numbered Round of 16 matchups (Matchup #1: Cibao vs. Guadalajara, Matchup #3: Olimpia vs. NY Red Bulls, Matchup #5: Herediano vs. Tigres and Matchup #7: Tauro vs. Dallas) host the second leg of their respective quarterfinal matchup. That means Tigres – who fell to Pachuca by one goal in last year’s CCL championship final – will host the second and decisive leg of the goal-aggregate series at their Estadio Universitario home in Nuevo Leon, dubbed “The Volcano,” on Tuesday, March 13.
Since capping their treble-winning 2017 campaign with an MLS Cup victory on home soil in December, Toronto have spoken often of matching and even eclipsing last year’s exploits in the months ahead. Now they face an appropriately mammoth early hurdle in that quest in Tigres, arguably the best club team in North America over the past half-decade.
Consistently competing for trophies under longtime boss Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, Los Felinos have won three of the last five Liga MX championships (the 2015, 2016 and 2017 Aperturas) and finished as runners-up in last year's Clausura.
One of only two men in Mexican soccer history to coach more than 1,000 league games, their hard-boiled Brazilian manager is as savvy and ruthless as they come, and has steered the club for more than a decade – a lifetime in Mexican coaching terms. US-based fans may remember Ferretti as the one who took over El Tri for a brief stint in 2015, orchestrating Mexico’s dramatic CONCACAF Cup win over the USMNT at the Rose Bowl to book tickets to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Just as daunting: Tigres, fuelled by success as well as the investment of investors Cemex, a construction-industry titan, have relentlessly built on one achievement after another, splashing out on some of the biggest transfers in modern Liga MX history.
The headliner is French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, a powerful finisher and mercurial personality who has turned many heads in Europe towards the Mexican game. Chilean attacker Eduardo Vargas, Argentinean Ismael Sosa and their Ecuadorian colleague Enner Valencia are cunning, athletic frontrunners who’d be welcomed into the starting lineups of just about every pro team on the continent.
Goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman is a quirky, combustible presence capable of winning matches himself on the rare occasions that his teammates do not. Mexican internationals like Javier Aquino, Hugo Ayala and Real Salt Lake target Jesus Duenas are also key cogs on a roster bursting with elite talent. Even US international Jose Francisco “Gringo” Torres, rarely called upon in recent seasons, made an impact for Tigres, rising from the bench to assist on the final goal of their 3-1 win over Herediano on Tuesday.
These big cats have the ability to hog the ball and pass the life out of opponents. But they’re also capable of slashing opponents open at a moment’s notice, pulling out some wildly resourceful and resilient victories in big moments, often inspired by the casual, ferocious brilliance of Gignac.
Not short on ambition themselves, TFC have done their best to prepare for prizefights of this sort. Coach Greg Vanney and his staff worked over several years to cultivate both depth and diversity on their roster, which can come in handy on stages like this. They bolstered their already-fearsome squad with several TAM-enabled signings over the winter, with Auro starting in both legs of the Colorado series and Ager Aketxe making his Reds debut in Tuesday’s second leg.
Last year’s key capture, playmaker Victor Vazquez remains essential and effervescent. Goalkeeper Alex Bono made some key saves vs. the Rapids. Sebastian Giovinco already looks back near his devastating best – though Jozy Altidore’s early exit, whether due to ankle or stomach issues or both, is concerning.
Another encouraging sign for the Reds’ hopes: They drew a large, spirited crowd to BMO Field, suggesting that their fans are bought into their tournament run and keen to create the type of home-field advantage they’ll need to knock off Tigres, one of several Liga MX teams to have visited CCL woe upon MLS sides over the years.