TORONTO – That a disparity has existed in the past is plain to see.
Since 2008, MLS clubs have met Mexican clubs in 75 competitive matches. From those, the MLS side has won just 13. It is not a pretty history.
But ahead of their 2018 Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series against Tigres UANL, due to kick off on Wednesday night at BMO Field (8 pm ET | TSN2 in Canada, UDN/go90.com in US), Toronto FC aim to show that the gap has lessened.
“Our hope is that we've closed it,” said TFC head coach Greg Vanney on Tuesday in the prematch press conference.
Treble winners, setters of a new all-time MLS points record in a single season, the Reds have reason to believe in their capabilities. Vanney points to two specific elements in that process: continuity and TAM.
“We have continuity, which enables us to move forward as a group, build on experiences,” he explained. “With the various mechanisms the league [has put] in place, you bring in more experienced players, players who have different skill sets, which creates more depth, more variation.”
As related by Bill Manning at TFC’s President's Breakfast, 21 players on this year's roster were members of the 2017 MLS Cup-winning side. Of those, 17 were on the Reds side that reached the MLS Cup final the year before.
Continuity and skill have allowed Toronto to evolve tactically as well, yet another asset in these knockout situations.
“From the quality standpoint and the vision of how we want to play, our thought is that we've closed the gap,” reiterated Vanney. “We have every opportunity to win this game.”
That is not to say that all barriers have evaporated.
“We're three games in and they're 14 in,” said Vanney, assessing the challenge of timing with CCL action falling early on the calendar for MLS clubs compared to Liga MX’s. “In our league, the first 10 games are feeling things out, getting into a rhythm. Then you find what that looks like and it starts to flow. We're always pushed in our time line to be as sharp as we can, as quickly as we can against teams that are already running.”
Another obstacle to overcome: Toronto will face a daunting and decisive second leg away in Mexico, at Tigres' Estadio Universitario in Nuevo Leon, dubbed “The Volcano” for its noise and passion.
Toronto will have one slight advantage at BMO Field: The evening kickoff will see temperatures dropping towards the freezing point, an inhospitable Canadian welcome for the Mexican visitors.
“They're probably not used to this cold weather,” said van der Wiel. Meanwhile TFC have braved successive MLS Cup finals in December, as well as a frosty pair of matches against Colorado in the CCL Round of 16, including what’s believed to be the coldest conditions any MLS team has ever experienced.
The New York Red Bulls showed what’s possible on Tuesday with a 2-0 quarterfinal first leg win over Club Tijuana – just the third win by an MLS team in Mexico in 49 attempts. Yet Toronto will be looking to seize the initiative in the home leg nonetheless.
“We'd like to like to [take a lead to Mexico],” said Vanney. “The whole point of these first legs is to set yourself up in best possible way.”
Recent two-legged history has shown TFC have a propensity for doing just that. Against Colorado, a 2-0 win in the first leg paved the way for progression. In the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, a 2-1 win away to those same Red Bulls and a 0-0 draw in Columbus had them in good stead to finish off those series at home in the second leg.
Even a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Impact away in the first leg of that epic 2016 Eastern Conference Championship proved useful, as those away goals were crucial in the end. Similarly, a 2-0 home win over New York City FC at the Conference Semifinals stage opened the door to a 5-0 thrashing in the second leg.
Factor in the Canadian Championship, which TFC have won two years running, and the Reds have not lost a two-legged affair since May 2015, winning nine straight aggregate series, no matter where they began or ended.
“Our team is capable of getting a result anywhere on its day,” said Vanney. “It comes down to executing. We tend to be pretty good at creating chances; have been stingy defensively. We have to continue to do that.”
One thing matters most.
“When two good, top-level teams play, it becomes [a question of] who takes their chances when the opportunities arise,” suggested Vanney. “That's going to be an important aspect, whether we're home or away.”