At the end of the most challenging, taxing gauntlet ever endured by an MLS team, Toronto FC fell just 12 yards short of history.
Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley missed their penalty kicks, Chivas de Guadalajara held its nerve and with that, the best chance an MLS team has had to win the Concacaf Champions League and play in the FIFA Club World Cup was gone. After eliminating juggernauts UANL Tigres and Club América, Toronto stumbled against a beatable opponent in the finals, losing the regional title on penalty kicks, 4-2, after a 3-3 aggregate draw.
Toronto won Wednesday night’s second leg at Chivas’s Estadio Akron, 2-1, to force the tie and then the tiebreaker. It marked only the fourth time an MLS side outscored its opponent on Mexican soil, and the goals scored by Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco were the first surrendered by Chivas at home during this CCL season. TFC’s eight-game CCL run was full of achievements and milestones like those. But in the end, it concluded like all the others—with MLS disappointment and Mexican celebration.
Chivas’s title was the 13th in a row for a Liga MX side and marked the club's first continental championship since the inaugural tournament in 1962.
Here are three thoughts at the end of a gripping evening and a memorable run by the MLS champs:
Toronto FC couldn’t finish
TFC became the first MLS side to eliminate two Mexican teams in the same Concacaf tournament—and Tigres and América are no ordinary Mexican teams—in large part because they took care of business at BMO Field. Head to Mexico with an aggregate advantage, and you’ve got a chance to tilt the game just a little bit toward your terms. It had been enough.
But Toronto was wasteful in last week’s first leg against visiting Chivas. There were three or four golden scoring chances left unfinished at BMO (and a clear penalty against Giovinco that went uncalled), so what could’ve and should’ve been a victory turned into a 2-1 defeat thanks to a couple of isolated TFC errors in back. The margin for error in CCL games traditionally is razor thin, and Toronto left itself with next to no wiggle room in Wednesday’s decider.
And so it was deadlocked in the closing moments, with penalties looming, when Giovinco—the CCL golden ball winner—swung a cross from the left that fell to new U.S. national team midfielder Marky Delgado about eight yards from the Chivas net. Delgado was alone, had the title on this foot and smashed his volley into the stands.
Osorio then cracked his penalty off the crossbar, Bradley skied his even higher than Delgado’s miss, and that was it. With a tiny bit more precision, either last week or Wednesday, TFC would’ve been champs. They certainly were Chivas’s equal, at minimum, and did just about everything else right.
The CCL becomes the second trophy TFC has let slip away on penalties after the 2016 MLS Cup title it lost to Seattle.
Toronto overcame a ton
It wasn’t just the draw that forced TFC to face three Mexican clubs in succession. There was the travel. And the schedule congestion. And so many other obstacles that had to be overcome for Toronto to be in position to win the CCL title with a single swing of Delgado’s leg.
Several players reportedly fell ill following the semifinal decider at the Estadio Azteca and weren’t 100 percent in last week’s finals opener. Altidore, who missed a couple good looks in that game, was among them. Giovinco’s admission this week that he was frustrated by the lack of a contract extension could’ve been a distraction. The timing wasn’t ideal. And there were several injuries. Victor Vázquez was back but wasn’t ready to play 90 minutes, and Altidore missed the shootout because he exited hurt in the 85th.
Then there was the decimation of TFC’s defense. Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow all were out, leaving Bradley—the defensive midfielder—and outside back Gregory van der Wiel to play centrally in a 4-4-2. It was the biggest game in club history, and they almost were starting from scratch. Bradley had dropped deep in the 4-4-2 that Toronto used in December’s MLS Cup final, but he didn’t have anything close to the same defensive responsibilities that night as he did Wednesday.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney was on the LA Galaxy squad that won the 2000-01 Concacaf title, which was supposed to offer a ticket to a summer Club World Cup tournament in Spain. But FIFA’s first iteration of the competition collapsed amid financial problems, and it wouldn’t be revived until ’05. By then, MLS teams were forced to travel. And on Concacaf’s definition of a level playing field, they were out of their depth.
The dozen years of ineptitude and frustration that followed have been chronicled exhaustively, and the close calls engineered by Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) were exhilarating but, ultimately, were more about catching lightning in a bottle than a sign of things to come.
But this Toronto team was no fluke. It was good enough to win and at times, it seemed empowered by the adversity (Giovinco was a man possessed on Wednesday). In defeat, it’s so tempting to wonder what a healthier team with a bit of a kinder draw or some Pepto-Bismol might have accomplished. The fact that TFC came so close, that it pulled within a single shot or two of an unprecedented achievement, heightens the disappointment.
MLS hasn’t really closed the gap
Bradley said it himself ahead of the second leg: “In the end, this tournament for us has never been about trying to determine which league is better,” he told reporters. “[For TFC,] this tournament has been about the opportunity to win a very important, a very prestigious trophy. Nothing more.”
Toronto’s smart spending at the high end of the roster, quality scouting and player identification toward the bottom, tactical flexibility and club-wide commitment to a culture of excellence and stability—backed by millions—is what powered it to Wednesday’s tiebreaker. Its results in CCL are the historic exception and, while they certainly reveal what’s now possible in MLS, they don't represent the norm. Many already thought this Toronto FC team was the best in MLS history after last year’s treble. And the best team in MLS history still couldn’t finish the job on the CCL stage.
Chivas is a mediocre Liga MX side at best, currently in second-to-last place in the Clausura table and coming off a fall campaign in which it finished 13th. And yet it's going to the Club World Cup. The strength of a league is determined by its depth and the quality from top to bottom, not just by the exploits of its very best team. That’s especially worth noting when that best team is better than anything that’s come before—when it’s historically good.
MLS is improving, but not nearly at the rate Toronto did over the past four years. The vast majority of MLS clubs don’t have the resources, ambition, infrastructure, plan, or people that Toronto boasts. What it has done is establish the blueprint. It seems like there are a couple other clubs that currently have the potential to follow in TFC’s footsteps. But until many do, it’s hard to imagine Wednesday night’s close call becoming the norm. And it's hard to make the case that TFC's success reflects on the bulk of MLS.
This was about Toronto–its ambition, its quality and, ultimately, its failure. It has raised the bar. It’s not about MLS until others follow suit.