Another wild Concacaf Champions League evening left MLS with some familiar heartache, but also its best chance to win an elusive continental title for the first time in 17 years—and with it a prized spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Any lingering debate about whether Toronto FC is the best MLS team ever is 180 minutes from being dead and buried. On the heels of their CCL quarterfinal upset of Mexican champ Tigres UANL, the Reds on Tuesday dispatched Club América—Concacaf’s most decorated club—in the semis thanks to a well-earned 1-1 draw at the Estadio Azteca. Combined with last week’s 3-1 triumph in Toronto, Tuesday’s result was more than enough to see the Reds through to this month’s finals.
There, TFC will face the other half of Mexico’s Súper Clásico rivalry, Chivas de Guadalajara. Like Toronto, Chivas hit the road and was outplayed Tuesday. But the Goats were fortunate to be facing the New York Red Bulls, a club renowned for agonizing, repeated slip-ups in knockout competition. New York was dominant everywhere but the scoreboard, and the 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena knocked them out thanks to Chivas’s close 1-0 win in the first leg.
An MLS club hasn’t won the Concacaf title since 2000-01, back when the competition was a quick affair contested entirely on U.S. soil. Since they started traveling in '02, MLS members have earned just two silver medals and suffered loads of embarrassment. And Chivas, despite its pedigree and renown, hasn’t been regional champ since 1962. A drought will end soon.
First, here’s a look back at the two semi deciders and a quick look ahead to the finals.
Toronto passes test of altitude and depth
This TFC team is different. Moments, decisions or turning points during Tuesday’s game against América that would’ve beaten or bedeviled previous MLS teams, this Toronto squad survived. TFC’s commitment to the CCL has been total. It spent part of its preseason south of both borders and then arrived in Mexico City last Thursday, five-days ahead of the semifinal decider.
Toronto has spent and scouted in order to add the sort of depth no MLS team of the past has enjoyed. It was able to handle injuries to the likes of Victor Vázquez and Justin Morrow, who missed out Tuesday, and then the one that befell Jozy Altidore just a few minutes in. The Reds also have the composure to deal with the altitude and pressure that’s part and parcel of the Azteca experience. Key players avoided the yellow cards that would’ve resulted in a finals suspension. Goalkeeper Alex Bono made several massive saves, and Sebastian Giovinco and Tosaint Ricketts (Altidore’s replacement), combined to set up Jonathan Osorio for a clinical and opportunistic 12th-minute goal.
Big clubs roll with the punches and take advantage of their chances. They’re tactically flexible, which was evident during the second half as captain Michael Bradley seamlessly dropped into central defense. And TFC even get the benefit of the doubt from the referee. Tuesday’s was a guest from Uzbekistan who was neither intimidated by the Azteca atmosphere nor fooled by the 55th-minute dive by Alex Ibarra, who was searching for a penalty that would tie the game. América finally got that PK in second-half stoppage time, but by then the aggregate deficit was too much.
Where everything had gone wrong so many times before, it went right for TFC on Tuesday. América has lost just two of its 20 games in 2018. They’re good. But Toronto is the first MLS team built to win Concacaf, and it showed.
More Heartbreak in Harrison
Metro Playoff Failure followed the Red Bulls to Concacaf.
Despite facing what probably was the most beatable Mexican team an MLS side has faced this deep into the tournament—and despite putting together what may have been the most dominant performance against a Liga MX foe we’ve seen—New York somehow fell short again.
The Red Bulls were the better team for most of Tuesday—and on most of the field—and they’ll feel hard done by the result. But that’s been said so many times before about a club whose fortune in knockout competition couldn’t be worse. Through different eras, styles and philosophies, one factor has remained constant—New York stumbles in the clutch. They’ve qualified for the MLS playoffs as frequently as the five-time champion LA Galaxy and finished first in the East five times, but somehow have advanced to just one MLS Cup final (they lost). And over the past eight seasons, the Red Bulls have been eliminated on home soil a crushing five times.
With the chance to make history Tuesday, New York repeated it instead. The Red Bulls needed just one goal to draw level on aggregate and they came out flying, as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tim Parker had close-range shots blocked in the sixth. New York’s pressure continued, and it was relentless. Such was the totality of the hosts’ dominance that Chivas goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota was cautioned in the 28th minute for his excessive delay taking a goal kick. That’s right—a yellow card for time wasting before a half-hour had elapsed.
Chivas was hapless outside its own penalty area. But within 18 yards of its own goal, the visitors held firm. They were missing star defender Jair Pereira, who was suspended after choking New York’s Sean Davis in last week’s opener. But OswaldoAlanís and the rest of the Chivas defense turned desperation defending into an art; blocking, clearing, heading and sometimes bodychecking whatever came their way.
Daniel Royer sent a low, 18th-minute cross inches from the Chivas goal line, but both Wright-Phillips and Derrick Etienne just failed to reach it. The turnovers and scoring chances kept coming, and Chivas survived each one. By the time Cota recovered to parry aside a goal-bound, 91st-minute header from defender Aaron Long, it had seemed for a while that it was going to be one of those Red Bull playoff nights—the ones where the home team can’t buy a bounce. New York outshot Chivas by an outrageous 20-1 margin. But over 180 minutes, despite having the better chances by far, they failed to score. Their elimination was infuriating, deserved, and a familiar story.
Considering the history, it seems strange to be critical of an MLS side falling at the semifinal stage to a traditional Mexican power. But this season, and in this series, MLS has been Liga MX’s equal, and New York was by and large the superior team over the two legs. At some point, coming close is no longer good enough.
A look ahead to the CCL finals
The Concacaf title will be decided in Guadalajara during the final week of April, thanks to the CCL rule that awards the second leg to the team with the better record. Chivas is 4-1-1 in CCL play and TFC is 3-1-2.
But Toronto will be expected to win by many. Those records say a whole lot about strength of schedule, and not much about the relative strength of the two teams. TFC’s elimination of Tigres and América is far more impressive than Chivas’s display against New York and a Seattle Sounders team that’s struggled out of the gate. Neither club was tested in the round-of-16.
So an MLS team may be favored in the CCL finals. This is already significant. Now it’s up to Toronto to make history, and it’ll likely need to build a first-leg lead next week in order to do so. There will be concern over Altidore’s injury. He wasn’t vital to TFC’s defensive effort on Tuesday, but he’ll be critical if they’re going to take an aggregate advantage to Guadalajara.
Chivas will be missing Pereira, who will serve the second game of his suspension, and can’t count on Toronto being as wasteful in front of the goal as the Red Bulls.
Toronto’s achievement already is massive. MLS clubs have won just six of 37 home-and-home series against Mexican opposition, and TFC has recorded two of them in the past few weeks. But they won’t want to stop now, and any conversation about MLS “closing the gap” with Liga MX eventually has to include several CCL crowns. That debate will only be starting if TFC wins. But the conversation about the best MLS team of all time will be over. The Reds are on the verge.