On the eve of potentially the biggest match in club history, Toronto FC know that talent alone will not suffice.
Having taken a 3-1 advantage from the home leg, TFC head into Mexico City's famed Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night for the decisive match in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League against Club América (10 pm ET | UDN, go90.com in US; TSN1/4 in Canada).
“You can't win the games as we have over the last two years just on talent,” said Greg Vanney following the first leg. “You have to have a great mentality, be organized, have a plan both defensively and offensively; have a group that buys into it, works for each other.”
“For sure you have to have talent, guys who make plays in big moments, but I don't know any league anywhere where a team wins consistently just on talent,” continued Vanney. “You've got to have a lot of other aspects.”
Over those two years, whether it be in the regular season, MLS Cup Playoffs, the Canadian Championship, or the MLS Cup final itself, Toronto have risen to the occasion more often than not. They will need to do so once more come Tuesday.
“Our group is motivated more by big moments than the average game, so you see our guys step up,” said Vanney. “When the occasion gets big, they become bigger. That's been great for our group.”
For Michael Bradley, that is born of “the understanding that on nights like this not every play is perfect.”
“You have to have a group that is committed to staying after it, playing, reacting, and moving together, trusting in how you play; knowing that if you can do that over the course of 90 minutes you give yourself a real chance,” he said.
That this night comes against an historic Mexican opponent only adds to the occasion.
“We're all very proud of what is going on in MLS,” said Bradley on Saturday. “It's clear for everybody to see that there continues to be big improvement.”
But Bradley and his side refuse to see the match as a referendum on MLS-Liga MX supremacy.
“That's something that is probably more interesting for the media and people on the outside,” said Bradley. “Our mentality is we're representing ourselves, [our] club and [the city of] Toronto. MLS and US and Canada, as well, but when we step on the field, the goal is to lift this trophy, not to prove that MLS is better than Liga MX.”
That said, Bradley did admit, “The rivalry is real.”
“For a large part of the last 10 years, teams from MLS have had a difficult time in this competition; Mexican teams have had a lot of success,” continued Bradley. “For us, this has been a big goal, to first qualify and then make sure we gave ourselves a chance to play until the end. We've done a good job so far. We understand nothing is finished yet, there is still a long way to go. We're excited by that.”
“As competitors, there is nothing better,” said Bradley. “These are the types of games you want to play: second leg of a Champions League semifinal in Azteca, against a very good team... it's something we're all very excited for.”
That Toronto's scheduled league match against D.C. United this past weekend was moved is evidence of the place this competition holds in the imagination of MLS. Conversely, Club América played, drawing 1-1 away to Necaxa on Saturday.
“Around the world, different leagues find ways to help their teams. It's up to each federation to decide how much they want to do,” noted Bradley. “On one hand, it's an advantage for us to be here, start to prepare for the game and not play this weekend. On the other, the calendar of Champions League still heavily favors Mexican teams. They are [several] weeks farther into their season than we are.”
“When you step on the field, these are all excuses,” added Bradley. “These things mean nothing. When the whistle blows, you have two good teams on the field, who are going to give everything to win.”
While Vanney was adamant he hasn't looked that far into the future, he did admit: “From an MLS perspective it would probably be happy.”
“To have two teams in semifinals and have some good results along the way shows that MLS is making progress,” explained Vanney. “The league is still very young. The measure in the Concacaf region is against Mexican opponents. To show that we're making some progress is positive for the league.”
“From a personal perspective the only job to get ourselves to the final,” added Vanney. “New York can take care of themselves and we'll see what happens. Our emphasis is on ourselves, trying to get past Club América.”