TORONTO – When one goes into the proverbial lion's den, all available guile need be mustered.
There are no lions in Monterrey, but as Toronto FC prepares for Tuesday night's second leg encounter with Tigres UANL, which will decide who moves on to the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, every resource at their disposal will be tapped.
TFC carries with them a 2-1 lead from the first leg at BMO Field last week, but the long history of MLS sides in Mexico makes for dire reading.
“It's a big moment,”said Drew Moor. “You go to Monterrey, a place where Tigres are extremely good and have been for the last [few] years. Not a lot of teams go in there and get much joy. It's huge.”
“We're going to enjoy it, going to embrace that moment, that struggle,” continued Moor. “We've played in some big games, in some tough atmospheres. It's important we draw on experience, take it one moment at a time, and fight as hard as we can to come back having advanced.”
History is past, Tuesday is future; TFC believe this time will be different.
Toronto captain Michael Bradley points to two reasons why: “Experience and confidence.”
“We've got guys who have played in big games, in these types of games, all over the world,” explained Bradley.
US teammates Bradley and Jozy Altidore have vast experience playing in Mexico and beyond in such heightened circumstances. Sebastian Giovinco cut his teeth in the high pressure environs of Italian giants Juventus FC. Victor Vazquez and Chris Mavinga similarly came up in the cauldron that is top-tier European football, while Drew Moor and Justin Morrow have sampled all that MLS can offer.
And the rest of the squad has been forged in the fires of recent MLS and Canadian competition.
“By now, we have a group of guys in this team who have together played in a lot of these types of nights: two years of playoff series; Canadian Championship series, MLS Cup finals, play-in games where it is do-or-die, in-or-out,” added Bradley. “The more you do that, the more you understand what they're all about.”
Greg Vanney echoed that sentiment: “Our group has been together a long time now.”
“Two years ago, if we gave up the first goal we were going to lose,” said Vanney. “Over the course of 2016-2017, we got into a rhythm where it didn't matter if we were down or up. We knew what it looked like when we needed to be more or less aggressive and we had the confidence to trust the process.”
“It comes down to understanding how to adjust in the moment,” continued Vanney. “[In the first leg], once we gave up the goal, we became more aggressive. That stance helped us get more chances through the course of the game.”
Forged in successive Voyageurs Cup wins and MLS Cup Final runs, including more than a few two-legged series, Vanney sees the last two years as the foundation for this moment.
“This group has built off those experiences,” said Vanney. “We know we have a marginal lead; we've got to protect that. But at the same time, [none] of us are convinced that is going to be enough to get it done.”
“We still have to be diligent on the attacking side, get at least one goal,” added Vanney. “We've done a good job of having a balance of what we want to do going into the second leg.”
To that core of experience, both MLS and international, Toronto has only added more this offseason: Ager Aketxe, Auro, and Gregory van der Wiel.
“The bigger the game, the bigger the environment, the more experience the players have, the more comfortable they can be,” said Vanney of the benefits of diversity, depth, and range of previous trials. “It's definitely valuable for us when you go play in Mexico and it's going to be a big, loud environment, different than any of the stadiums we play in here. You've got to be able to manage and still stay focused on all the individual details of the game.”
While Tigres' Estadio Universitario--better known as 'El Volcan'--seems a daunting test, TFC has players who have been there and done that at the highest level.
Aketxe and Auro developed in the storied systems of Athletic Bilbao and Sao Paulo, respectively, where the pressures of expectation sit heavily. Van der Wiel's path, from Ajax to Paris Saint-Germain and the Dutch National Team has prepared him for such moments, including a start in the 2010 World Cup Final vs. Spain.
“Another guy who knows what it is like to be on the field in big games, with a lot on the line. That's for sure,” said Bradley of his new teammate. “Whether it's World Cups, UEFA Champions League, league matches in Holland, France, Turkey. He knows what they're all about.”
Regardless of what may come, Toronto are well prepared, braced for whatever the home fans throw their way.
“I've not been to Monterrey, people say the stadium is old, but amazing,” said Bradley. “They have incredible fans, this is a trophy that has eluded them a little bit. I expect a good atmosphere and a fun night.”
“It plays a part, for sure,” added Bradley of the potential cacophony. “Especially if the home team can play in a way where the fans and the whole atmosphere gets really cranked up. Then, in terms of energy, momentum, then things can come together quickly. If we can be good and be aggressive, put game on our terms, then it comes into it less. It works both ways.”
It will not be anything the TFC players have not faced before.
“I played in the same atmosphere in Europe, in Europa League against [Eastern European] teams, they are like this,” explained Mavinga. “I focus on the field and the game, the 90 minutes. If we score early, it will [silence the fans].”
Rabid home support can be a double-edged sword, to stem the tide, Toronto will mine all their vast experiences.
“You draw on them all in one way or another,” said Bradley. “As a game like this gets closer, it invokes all sorts of memories, different games and experiences. The closer you get, you start to zero in on what it's going to take on this night to make sure that we're on the right side of things.”
After all, soccer is soccer, wherever it is played.
“[The atmosphere is] not so different. They are trying to push like every team when they play at home,” said Vazquez, who played in Mexico with Cruz Azul before joining TFC. “When teams come to Toronto they feel the same because our crowd and supporters always push a lot.”
The challenge ahead is clear: overcome the weight of history, as noted by Vazquez, “MLS teams [don't] win in Mexico.”
But Toronto has never been afraid of doing that which it was said could not be done.
“We're going to try to do it, to be the first to win [a series] in Mexico; to be in the semifinal,” said Vazquez. “We are confident in ourselves. We are not afraid to play in Mexico.”