TORONTO – Two champions enter; one moves on.
When Toronto FC and Tigres UANL meet on Tuesday night in the second leg of their 2018 Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal (10 pm ET | UDN, go90.com), it will be a rare occurrence, title-holders crossing paths in continental competition so soon afterwards, though one we will now see every year after MLS and Liga MX announced the Campeones Cup on Tuesday morning.
TFC are defending MLS Cup champions; Tigres winners of the 2017 Apertura in Liga MX. A single day in December was all that separated the respective triumphs.
Toronto enter the decisive leg with a 2-1 advantage, having won by that scoreline at BMO Field on Wednesday.
Getting to this stage against this opponent is the culmination of long desire at TFC, but it is not the final step.
“Playing in the Champions League, against some of the best Mexican teams in big games, is something that a lot of us have looked forward to for a couple of years,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley on Saturday. “When you see the draw, the potential for us to play Tigres right away in the quarterfinal... everybody’s mouths were watering.”
“Opportunities to test yourself, individually and collectively, at the highest level, where there is so much on the line, don't come around every week,” he continued. “Even in terms of perception, right or wrong, to prove ourselves to people who don't think we're as good or the quality of the league is as good.”
“We take the responsibility very seriously,” added Bradley. “We put a lot into Wednesday night; we're ready to do it again.”
MLS is stricken with #CCLFever. Those who have been around for longer than a couple years remember #MLS4RSL (2011) and #MLS4MTL (2015) in days past, when those two teams reached the final of the competition. TFC feel that too, but have their own priorities.
“It's there,” said Greg Vanney. “I would selfish that pride a little more: we're playing for our club, our city, the things we stand for as a group.”
“The next tier is that we're playing for MLS, for Canadian soccer. All those are there in this feeling,” added Vanney. “This is a team that has been able to win a lot of things last year, do a lot for the first time. This is another of those obstacles. Everybody wants to be the first; to prove we're a team that can be measured with the best in our region. That's [the] ambition.”
“Tigres is a very good team,” reminded Vanney. “They've proven that over a number of years. For us to go after this, try to win this, is a prideful moment.”
Not that Toronto will not be pulling for their league-mates.
“It's hard not to support MLS sides; even teams you learn not to like,” smiled Drew Moor. “It's a very nice rivalry MLS has against the Mexican league. It's always been there; it always will be. While we represent TFC, we also want to make a statement.”
“Good wins for both sides,” said Vanney. “New York did what they do: pressed off the bat, got a lead. Tijuana were uncomfortable and then got very direct, which plays into the hands of [New York]. They've taken [Tijuana] out of their style; they were very disruptive.”
“Second half Tijuana had some moments, but then Bradley Wright-Phillips does what he does, finds a gap and puts in a goal,” continued Vanney. “Fantastic win on the road, they're in a good position.”
“Seattle did what [they do],” added Vanney. “The game was wide open, they were able to find good moments, create some chances. The guys that you rely on, your experienced guys, your money makers, for both teams – Wright-Phillips and Clint Dempsey – make plays in these big games. They did for their teams.”
Though both the thrill of MLS fans and the ire of the Mexican ones was palpable on social media, Bradley cautioned against getting too caught up in the excitement: “These ties… we're halfway through them. We'll talk after 90 more minutes.”
Bradley did note that there is “no question that MLS continues to grow and improve”.
According to Vanney, “A big part of the advancement [is that] more of our teams have a clear identity. They are more specific, there is a better collective understanding: this is what we're going to do, how we're going to score, how we're going to defend.”
“That clarity has helped,” added Vanney. “It wasn't that long ago MLS was very improvisational, off-the-cuff. You had good players and they either made the plays or didn't. Now tactics are more sophisticated and vary across teams. The Eastern Conference is a little farther along, but that is going to continue to evolve as the league continues to progress.”