Warshaw: Toronto FC are in a tough spot, but the CCL title remains in reach

It’ll be hard, but it can be done.

After losing 2-1 to Chivas Guadalajara at BMO Field in Leg 1 of the Concacaf Champions League final, Toronto FC have put themselves in a tough position on Wednesday night (9:30 pm ET; TSN in Canada | UniMás, UDN, go90.com in US). Since the Champions League format started in 2008, only two teams have won on the road in the second leg to take the lead in the tie. Both times it happened with Mexican teams against MLS opponents. When Toronto previously pictured their path to victory, it almost certainly would have included a win on Canadian soil.

Not getting that home victory made it tougher, but an aggregate win isn't out of reach.

Most Toronto/MLS supporters were confident going into the first leg. I know I expected Toronto to win at BMO. Toronto has had an amazing year in MLS and CCL; Chivas has had a poor year in Liga MX.

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At first, I beat myself up for my conviction: How could I be so stupid to underestimate Chivas de Guadalajara?! They are Chivas! It doesn’t matter how much they’ve struggled in their league competition –you can’t underestimate Chivas! But then I realized Toronto are … Toronto. They deserved to be the favorites. But sometimes the favorites just don’t win.

Which brings us to the second leg. Toronto FC are still the same team that knocked out Tigres and Club America. If the first leg had been played in Guadalajara, we would have said that Toronto holds a good chance of winning. Nobody would have been too surprised to see Toronto return from Estadio Akron with a win. Just because a game happened in between doesn’t mean Toronto has any less of a chance to win down there.

It’ll be hard. But Toronto can do it.

Here’s what they need to take from the opener to be successful in the second leg: Chivas man-marks everyone everywhere in their own half. I hadn’t fully noticed it until I went back and watched the game again (and I’m annoyed/embarrassed I hadn’t picked it up before).

Here you can see how tightly Chivas players were man-marking Toronto FC.

Chivas players followed their Toronto counterparts all around the field. Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio , Marky Delgado and Ashtone Morgan are each tightly tracked. The Chivas players never try to pass anyone on to a teammate – or look for help.

It’s not something many professional teams do. Most teams play a zonal scheme defensively, in which players account for areas and lanes rather than individual players; if a player leaves a zone, he gets passed on to another defender. As a result, it’s not something Toronto has encountered often as a group, or one they're as readily able to read or execute against. When a player gets the ball, he usually knows what options he has at any given moment and can act accordingly; against a new scheme, those options change. It forces the attacker to take an extra second to react, seconds that can make a huge difference. Toronto gave away more turnovers than normal and never looked their usual, confident selves.

Yet TFC also had a few gorgeous sequences. Chivas left fairly large gaps between their players. A team generally wouldn’t want to be so stretched defensively. It’s a side effect of man marking. You aim to always be close enough to an opponent that he can never pick up his head to find the openings.

Look at how much space they left between defenders.

When Toronto were able to hold their nerve under the pressure and keep their touches sharp, they were able to break through Chivas’s defensive efforts. Once someone shed their own personal pressure, they were alone in open space. Toronto had a few big opportunities that they missed, but would usually put away. They still had enough chances to win the game. Wednesday’s second leg should be similar.

I don’t expect Toronto to do anything differently. Through their 16 months of dominance, they’ve never deviated from their general philosophy. They’ve changed their formation, but they’ve never changed how they play or approach a game. I don’t expect them to go into Guadalajara with any gimmicks. I simply expect them to take the lessons they learned from Leg 1 and execute better.

After the emotional disappoint in Leg 1, it’s easy to feel down on Toronto’s chances. Strangely, I feel the opposite. After re-watching last week’s game, it’s clear where and why Toronto struggled. Chivas plays an unorthodox style and it unsettled Toronto. But now Toronto has 90 minutes against it. They know the feelings and thought processes that come with playing Chivas. They’ve also had a week to watch the film and note the options and do drills that will prepare effective patterns for a man-marking system.

It’ll be hard. It’s always hard. One of the biggest mistakes in life is ever thinking championships won’t be. But it can be done. This can be done.

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