The formula is complex, difficult to replicate and, as expected, includes several variables and a lot of zeros. It’s also clearer than ever, thanks to a historic run by Toronto FC that has led to the Concacaf Champions League finals and the threshold of the FIFA Club World Cup.
The final exam begins when TFC plays host to traditional Mexican power Chivas de Guadalajara on Tuesday evening at BMO Field. The decider will take place April 25 at the Estadio Akron in Zapopan. Toronto hopes to become the first Concacaf champion from MLS since the LA Galaxy won an abbreviated tournament in early 2001. Chivas is seeking its first continental honor since 1962, but could become the 13th consecutive Mexican squad to claim the regional title. Liga MX clubs have brushed aside or plowed through MLS opposition along the way. MLS teams have made it this far on two occasions, but both Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) were long shots to finish the job. They were Cinderella exceptions to the rule.
Since Concacaf competition began requiring road trips in 2002, MLS clubs have fallen on their faces with infuriating and repetitive regularity. It happened against opponents from throughout the region. New England once was beaten by five goals in a two-game series against Trinidad’s Joe Public, for example, and both TFC and LA were eliminated by second-tier Puerto Rico FC. But failure was a fait accompli against Mexican foes. Nothing put MLS in its humble place like a home-and-home against a deeper, wealthier, savvier side from Liga MX. Entering this year’s CCL, members of the former were a revealing (and awful) 3-for-32 in two-leg ties against the latter. Every step forward was followed by a couple in reverse. The gap remained stubbornly wide.
Then came Toronto, and not out of nowhere. This CCL run has been in the works for years, starting when departed CEO Tim Leiweke and GM Tim Bezbatchenko pulled the trigger on the “Bloody Big Deal” acquisitions of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe in January 2014. Since then, the Reds and coach Greg Vanney (who played for that Galaxy team back in ’01) have patiently built a squad and cultivated a culture that, even if it hasn’t narrowed the collective gap between MLS and Liga MX, has blazed a trail for smart, patient and ambitious MLS teams. They've proven it's possible to reach the regional summit.
We know this because Toronto’s path is no fluke. The club has been targeting this—there’s already a case built for the CCL trophy at its training facility—and there definitely was no luck of the draw. After facing the Colorado Rapids in February’s round of 16 and winning, 2-0, on aggregate, TFC had to get past the best Mexican team of the moment (Liga MX champion Tigres UANL) and the most decorated Concacaf team of all time (Club América), to reach the finals. Again, coming in, MLS teams had won only three home-and-homes against Mexican opposition. Toronto would have to match that just to win this tournament. Its challenge was historic.
“The pathway to even getting to the finals was even more difficult, and was more than we imagined when we took on the idea to win the Champions League. I don’t think we expected it to look quite like that,” Vanney told SI.com. “But the team we have has been built for this moment.”
TFC advanced deservedly, ousting Tigres on away goals after their two quarterfinal matches ended, 4-4, on aggregate, then beating América in the semis, 4-2, on aggregate. Both Tigres and América made the scoreline more flattering with stoppage time penalties in the closing seconds of their series. MLS teams had never won a two-game tie when the second leg was played in Mexico. The Reds then did it twice in under than a month. Moreover, considering that run, their talent and Chivas’s difficulty putting away the New York Red Bulls in the other semifinal, TFC is considered by most to be the favorite. Not only is an MLS team on the verge of winning CCL, they’re expected to. That’s a testament to Toronto’s application of the formula. All that remains is one final trial.
The first variables are, of course, depth and talent. And Toronto has both to spare. That’s where the zeroes come in, obviously. The club’s payroll last year was around $22.5 million, the MLS high, and it likely rose in the offseason thanks to the influx of new TAM funding and the acquisition of defenders Gregory van der Wiel and Auro, and midfielder Ager Aketxe. Many considered last year’s treble-winning Toronto team the best in MLS history, and that was before the wins over Tigres and América.
For so many years, MLS clubs that spent Designated Player money still couldn’t come close to matching the middle and bottom ends of a Liga MX roster. Think of all the times a Mexican side pulled away late because the MLS team couldn’t compete with an opponent’s talented reserves, or because an MLS player making 20 percent of his Liga MX counterpart made a mistake. Then consider the times an extra sliver of quality in the penalty area—the sort of touch, precision or vision that often costs millions—made the difference. The rampant but wasteful Red Bulls surely could’ve used that against Chivas. Toronto has it.
Vanney pointed out, however, that it’s not just marquee players like Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore who have delivered for TFC. You’ve got to get the DPs right—Toronto had botched those signings in the past—then add the talent around them. TFC has found gems in MLS veterans like Drew Moor and Justin Morrow and unearthed young talent like Marky Delgado—a Chivas USA castoff—goalkeeper Alex Bono and Toronto native Jonathan Osorio.
“I don’t think it’s all about money. That doesn’t hold water against Club América. Jozy wasn’t on the field [after leaving injured in the seventh minute]. Chris Mavinga was out. Justin was out. [Víctor] Vázquez. Van der Wiel has to come off at halftime,” Vanney explained. “If it was just a money issue, then we wouldn’t have survived that day.”
Players making more modest salaries performed at the Azteca, for sure: Bono, Osorio, Tosaint Ricketts, Eriq Zavaleta, etc. But they work for an organization that shortchanges nothing. TFC spent some $21 million on its North York training facility. The club has put around $2.6 million into its USL team, and in the past three years, it’s invested nearly $7 million in the academy. And it has robust scouting and analytics departments. That creates fertile ground.
Money matters, but so does turf. And that’s been another significant factor in TFC’s run. MLS may have had a miserable record playing second legs in Mexico, but Vanney said hosting the openers against Tigres and América—and taking leads into the deciders, where all the pressure was on the hosts—has been massive. They’ll have the similar opportunity Tuesday to build an aggregate advantage over Chivas.
“When we can get leads, we are very good and very difficult to beat,” Vanney said.
TFC is experienced. The core has been together for several years. And along with the attention to detail stressed by Vanney and Bradley, that creates the sort of familiarity and flexibility that wins games at higher levels. Consider the switch to a 4-4-2 that so bedeviled the Seattle Sounders in December’s MLS Cup final. For Toronto, it was seamless and devastating.
“Our group has a lot of versatility for game-planning—for different scenarios and different situations, and think that’s played favorable to us. Unlike a lot MLS teams in the past, the same group of players has been together the last 2-3 years, and have been through a lot of big games and big scenarios together as a group. That’s not really common in Concacaf,” Vanney said, explaining that the year-plus lag between qualifying for the CCL and then the tournament’s knockout rounds could wreak havoc on MLS rosters constrained by a budget.
“I said to them before the game [against América] that regardless of the stadium, the altitude, they’re not going to see anything different tonight then they’ve seen before. They’ll be able to deal with those situations, because we’ve dealt with them before. It doesn’t matter that we’re at Azteca,” Vanney added. “They’ve had so many challenges together, they weren’t going too see anything they haven’t dealt with in the past.”
That past includes playoff series that were attacking and wide open (Montreal in the 2016 conference finals) and rough-and-tumble grinds (last season against the Red Bulls).
“This team is capable of winning in many different ways, where I think a lot of MLS teams didn’t have as many ways to go win games,” Vanney said. “We can win on the counter. We can win with possession. We can win a set-piece game. We have lots of different ways we’re capable of getting results.”
That ability to evolve and adapt requires collective chemistry and confidence. Those are ‘X’ factors that are just as crucial to the CCL formula. The interest in establishing a club culture was one of the key reasons TFC invested so much to bring Bradley over from Roma. And it’s played a significant part in the improvement of players like Osorio and Delgado, the ability to rebound from the devastating 2016 MLS Cup setback, and the composed, mature approach at El Volcán and the Azteca.
The resilience required to handle the CCL bracket of death, Vanney said, was born out of the effort to ease the pain of that 2016 defeat with the 2017 treble. Win every game. Don’t think about getting back to MLS Cup, but prepare for it by treating every match like a final. Don’t worry about the collective weight of the history, trophy cases and fan bases at Tigres, América and Chivas. You don't have to beat them all at once and, after all, there’s nothing there you haven’t seen before.
“The strength is being single-minded on your mission, but understanding that every single game and every single day is imperative to accomplishing that,” Vanney said. “Every game was a target, and we played every single game to win every single game. If we go through that process for the entire year, then we’ve prepared ourselves to win the one or two games we ultimately want.”
He continued, “Our team is different because it just believes it can win. It just has this stubbornness. This team is going to win no matter what, and it goes from Michael down to the last guy on the roster. And it’s because of that day-to-day approach.”
TFC lost just seven of 43 games in 2017, but it's had little choice but to abandon the “win every game” mantra during the early stage of this MLS season. Nobody faults Vanney for that. He rested most regulars in Saturday’s 2-0 loss in Colorado and when Toronto takes the field against Chivas, it’ll be a last-place team. But it’s a group that’s demonstrated what it can achieve with focus and resolve, and it’ll turn that arsenal toward chasing down the rest of the Eastern Conference once the CCL is over. Meantime, the Reds are determined to make history.
TFC may not win, of course, even though it probably should. Things happen over the course of 180 minutes, especially in Concacaf. But a negative result won’t erase what Toronto has established—that there’s a way to get better, and that there’s a way to compete on level terms with top Mexican clubs. If it’s not a blueprint, at least it’s a roadmap. Zeroes are required, but so is the right scouting, coaching, priorities and culture. And it can be done on a local level. Vanney pointed out with pride that TFC’s GM, manager and captain are American, and that eight U.S. or Canadian players started at the Azteca (ironically, América started only three Mexicans).
“To me, that is one of the beauties of this,” Vanney said. “Not just winning, but winning with players from our countries.”
For MLS clubs, winning CCL still isn’t a probability. The tournament's timing still makes things difficult. Liga MX has more money and more depth, and its entrants likely will be favored again in 2019. The “gap” between the leagues can’t be considered closed until MLS teams lift the trophy regularly. But TFC has demonstrated this spring that winning is a possibility—and not one based on a lucky draw or a lucky bounce but one that, for a team with the wherewithal, can be planned and pursued. No trophy or title comes with that, but it’s a significant accomplishment.
Toronto has established the pace. It’s now 180 minutes from setting a new standard.
“We have the opportunity to be different in this league, and to be the best team that ever played in this league,” Vanney said. “But it takes a lot of steps, a lot of hard work, a lot of difficult moments. It’s a process. But it’s why I took this job. It’s why Michael took the risk to come back here. It’s what Jozy, Seba—all the guys we bring to this club—sign on for: to be something different to what anyone’s seen in MLS. We weren’t always sure how to ultimately define that but knew we had to plow ahead and be better, and create this culture of winning.”