Before this week, I counted myself among the skeptics, among the cynics, among those who wondered whether the inaugural edition of the Campeones Cup would feel like more of a sideshow than marquee event.
The timing wasn’t great – a midweek distraction smack dab in the middle of a playoff race. Same for Toronto FC’s form, middling-to-poor since their Concacaf Champions League dream went bust. TFC and Tigres are champions, sure, but Toronto won their hardware months ago and Tigres only sealed the appearance in July.
I was a hypocrite. I realize that now.
No, the circumstances surrounding Wednesday’s match (8:15 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TSN, TVAS) aren’t ideal, but I’ve been begging for this game for years. Pitting the champions of MLS and Liga MX in a one-off match made perfect sense to my soccer- and Concacaf-obsessed brain, that is until I decided it wasn’t convenient enough.
When I got to Toronto this week, I went back and watched the highlights from Toronto FC’s epic CCL quarterfinal series against Tigres.
Goosebumps. I thought about all those hours spent obsessing over #CCLFever, about the slow but steady progress MLS has made in a league-wide effort to knock Mexico off their regional perch, about the way the interleague rivalry gets our collective blood pumping.
Campeones Cup is what I wanted, and there’s no sense judging the match before it’s played.
We don’t yet know what this game will look like Wednesday ... or five years from now, but the idea is good-to-great and the potential is massive given the appetite on both sides of the Rio Grande for head-to-head measuring sticks of both leagues’ progress.
Taylor Twellman got it spot on at halftime of Sunday’s Atlantic Cup broadcast on ESPN: This is just the beginning. What Campeones Cup is in 2018 is not what it will be in 2023. What MLS is in 2018 is not what it will be in 2023. Traditions (and interest) aren’t created overnight. It takes time, it takes patience and this game isn’t going anywhere.
Now, that doesn’t mean Campeones Cup is destined to be an automatic success from the start. It’s on the teams in the game to make us care, to create a sense of urgency, to set the stage for future matches.
Greg Vanney and Tuca Ferretti are in a tough spot. Vanney’s got a must-win game against the Red Bulls on Saturday (5pm ET | TSN - Full TV & streaming info), and Ferretti’s facing a long flight home followed by a rivalry match against Monterrey. While we know both squad lists, we don’t know what each team’s starting XI will ultimately look like.
If they field a full-strength lineup – both Vanney and Jozy Altidore described the match as an opportunity to build momentum and continuity now that the Reds' stars are simultaneously healthy – it’ll be a sign to the rest of us that this game is big-time. If they don’t, it’ll be up to the players on the field to prove this game is more than a much-hyped friendly.
And ultimately, it’s on MLS clubs, beginning with Toronto FC, to give Campeones Cup the intrigue it needs to thrive.
Concacaf Champions League was more sideshow than marquee event until MLS sides started to expose cracks in Liga MX’s long-held hegemony. For this game to reach its potential, MLS clubs must win.
Toronto FC can do that and set the tone for this competition and the rest of their season. We haven’t seen the team that laid claim to the title of Concacaf’s best for months, but the players haven’t changed and they’re all finally healthy or close to it.
Remember, the timing wasn’t ideal back in March either, and Toronto FC and Tigres delivered a series for the ages. It’s not ideal now, but I can’t help but hope we get more of the same. Two champions. One cup. One game to remember.