Toronto takes MLS' progress to the final frontier

Champions League finalists TFC are pushing MLS to the next level, says Steve Davis

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We will know in two weeks whether Major League Soccer’s time has finally come in the Concacaf Champions League – a regional competition that’s become an ongoing reference point, sometimes seemingly a never-ending one, for relative league quality.

Whether it should be, and what the real-world bounce might be once the elusive moment inevitably arrives that an MLS team is finally top of the Concacaf hill, all remains up for debate. But enticingly, we may be very close to finding out. 

See, this star-packed and increasingly steeled club Toronto FC has a real shot here. The Reds have a legitimate chance to become the first Concacaf Champions League winner from anywhere except Mexico.

The chance will come excitingly quickly. Greg Vanney’s team meets Chivas de Guadalajara for the CCL crown and the consequent spot in FIFA’s Club World Cup. Home and away dates are scheduled for April 17 and 25. 

Major League Soccer’s quest was hardly complete on Tuesday. On the night Toronto’s Reds booked their spot, the New York Red Bulls went out, cruelly eliminated in the home-and-away semifinal against Mexico’s Chivas. The popular team from Guadalajara was just about cynical and scrappy enough to survive the barrage of shots (an eye-popping 20-1 edge for NYRB) to advance. 

Progress in this case was a Liga MX side arriving at an MLS venue intent on parking the proverbial bus in a best-hope bid for survival. As moral victories go, it’s not a bad one, although surely cold comfort to the Red Bulls. Anyone who watched the series dispassionately would probably check “New York” as the better team. No matter; the popular Mexican club did what was needed against relentless high pressure and flies home as a Champions League finalist. 

Thus, just as FC Dallas had done last year, the Red Bulls saw their Champions League dreams end in the semifinal round. For MLS teams, that has been more or less par for the Concacaf course over the last few years: plenty of quarterfinalists along with a scattering of semifinalists, plus a pair of underdogs (Real Salt Lake and the Montreal Impact) who willed their way into finals.

MLS v Liga MX in CCL

MLS teams in Concacaf Champions League finals:
2011: RSL 2-2 Monterrey
Monterrey 1-0 RSL (agg. 3-2)
2015: América 1-1 Montreal
2-4 América (agg 3-5)

About the same time Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch was talking in a post-game presser about “bitter pills” and the quality of his young team – “It’s almost impossible, the way the game played out … that we can somehow not find a way to score a goal and find a way to be dangerous around the goal all night long, but not make that final play,” he said – Toronto FC was marching inexorably toward potential history. “More” history, we should say. Which is exactly why this team can reasonably be trusted to finish the job.

Treble winners keep meeting the challenge

Vanney’s team has gracefully high-stepped every substantial hurdle over the last 16 months. Deserving of MLS Cup in 2016 but nipped in penalty kicks in the final, the Reds were clearly a team on a mission in 2017. They got there and then some, earning a first domestic treble in 22 years of MLS history. Armed with last year’s Canadian Championship, Major League Soccer’s Supporters Shield and (most importantly) MLS Cup, the BMO Field bunch really have only one world to conquer: Concacaf Champions League.

Never mind that TFC had a semifinal hill to climb against a traditional Liga MX (and indeed CCL) power in Club America. Never mind Major League Soccer’s awful history as away teams in meaningful matches against clubs from south of the border. Never mind all the harrowing tales of discord due to Mexico’s famous, smoggy, high-altitude cauldron; the Reds were businesslike in earning a 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca and seeing out a 4-2 aggregate edge. Unlike the way Chivas advanced, crawling through withering fire, tiptoeing away just happy to be alive, Toronto’s night was calm, confident and focused. It was exactly what you’d expect from a club that keeps finding new ways to separate itself from the MLS peloton.

By the 44th minute, Club America had lost the plot. When defender Bruno Valdez went MMA on Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono, throwing an elbow with menace when he had no chance at the ball, it was a clear indication of the Mexican side’s mounting frustration: that the team’s state of mind was slipping into exacting revenge, rather than remaining dedicated to the far more useful “survive and advance” mindset. Knowing that you’re up against the better team will do that to you.

Sure, to keep Club America suffering from pressure rather than benefiting from momentum and initiative, Toronto needed a highlight-reel save from Bono before halftime; longtime Ipswich Town and Canadian international goalkeeper Craig Forrest called Bono’s 28th-minute reaction dandy one of the best stops he’d ever seen. But consider that Bono’s stunner happened about 20 minutes after a costly TFC injury. An early collision meant the early departure of TFC’s American international striker Jozy Altidore, provider of so many important goals in last year’s drive to MLS Cup.

Altidore (l) and Bradley (c) [ISI Photos-Angel Marchini / ZUMA Wire]

Altidore (l) and Bradley (c) [ISI Photos-Angel Marchini / ZUMA Wire]

But that helps prove the quality of this Toronto FC version, which is far from a one-trick pony. Sebastian Giovinco continues to be among the best attackers in the region, Liga MX included. There are few better midfield brains than Michael Bradley. Young midfielder Marky Delgado continues to head up the all-underrated team (probably less discussed precisely because of Altidore, Giovinco and Bradley). Drew Moor continues to thoughtfully, faithfully police a back line recently reinforced by former Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel. And now Bono has established his place as a potential difference-maker on the big occasion.

All that, plus question about Chivas

There’s another reason to like Toronto FC in the coming home-and-away series, and it has little to do with Toronto FC. The upcoming matches are against a club that simply doesn’t look up to the job.

Liga MX has long been the dominant regional power, having deservedly sent high-quality representative teams from Pachuca, Club America and Cruz Azul to the Club World Cup in recent years. Frankly, Chivas de Guadalajara looks nothing like those talented teams.

Chivas de Guadalajara simply doesn’t look up to the job

Chivas was sloppy and not particularly organized in its quarterfinal series against a Seattle team that has proved utterly underwhelming in subsequent league play, now without a single goal in three contests. Then Chivas was sloppy and completely unimpressive against the Red Bulls. In all honesty, there’s no reason to expect greatness from Chivas in the final.

Assuming Toronto can prevail, then we can perhaps answer the more far-reaching questions: Is a Club World Cup spot the game-changer so many think it can be, increasing the sport’s cultural heft across North America? Or, in greater likelihood, is it just something for Americans and Canadians to quietly hang their hats on, if nothing destined to have additional sponsors elbowing for position and a higher level of European star hellbent on joining MLS?

No need to get ahead of ourselves here; Vanney’s team has 180 potentially tough minutes ahead, a little more problematic if Altidore can’t recover from his muscle injury (although Vanney hopes to have him available). But whereas MLS supporters may have been little more than “hopeful” for Real Salt Lake in the 2011 final and for Montreal in 2015, they can lean towards something more like realistic confidence this time around. That in itself is progress, but Toronto can make history.