TORONTO – Now comes the tricky part.
Navigating to the final is necessary, but insufficient. Lifting that trophy is the ultimate goal. Having achieved the first, the second is exactly what Toronto FC have their sights set on as the first leg of the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final gets underway on Tuesday night at BMO Field (8:15 pm ET | TSN2 in Canada, UDN, go90.com in US).
In the way this time around stand a third straight Mexican opponent: Chivas de Guadalajara.
“They are a good team,” said Greg Vanney on a conference call on Thursday, comparing CD Guadalajara to the last two TFC faced in CCL, Tigres UANL and Club America. “They [don't] set themselves up the same way: they're more possession-oriented.
“Even though America had a fair amount of possession, it's not the way they want to play. They're very forward-thinking,” continued Vanney. “That's one of the reasons we had success: We did a very good job of setting up a wall and they kept running into us.”
Calling this final matchup “a slightly different-looking game” but “nonetheless, a tough opponent,” TFC’s head coach predicted an intriguing tactical clash.
“Chivas is a little less aggressive, in terms of trying to get balls forward,” explained Vanney. “They'll look to possess, play out of things, and move the ball more. We'll have to manage that and set ourselves up appropriately. On the defending side, they tend to get pretty personal, man on man; they try to press the ball quickly.”
Though Chivas are currently mired in the lower reaches of the Liga MX table, TFC captain Michael Bradley sees no reason to think this series will be any easier than the previous two, where Toronto advanced on away goals in the first and withstood the pressures of Mexico City’s famed Estadio Azteca in the second.
“They won the championship last year,” said Bradley last week. “They've had difficulty in the league, but have had a great run in Champions League.
“I've watched many games closely. It'll be a team that challenges us in big ways. We're excited.”
“We had Tigres in the quarterfinal, in terms of [recent] success the best team [in Mexico]. In the semifinal we had America, for some the biggest club and most historically successful,” noted Bradley. “And now we're going to get Chivas, the most supported, the biggest club for the people.
“The experience of playing on these nights, in these games, against good teams with good players,” he added with a smile, “it's fantastic.”
The audacity of Toronto’s trophy row is well known by now: TFC have filled two of the three cavities carved into a prominent wall at the BMO Training Ground with the Canadian Championship and MLS Cup won in last season's domestic treble.
Now, there remains a single, lonely spot unoccupied, reserved for the CCL trophy.
“We've been through a lot as a group,” said Vanney. “They know this is one of their goals, a target they set for themselves a long time ago. A lot of energy, focus, and preparation is going to go into the matches starting on Tuesday.
“For us, it's not so much about the trophy case. The group has been very motivated by this idea of being different from anyone who has come before. This is one more thing that has not been accomplished by anyone in MLS: to be the first is our objective. Now, we have one more mission.”
While some have proclaimed the Reds as favorites and Chivas as the weakest of the Mexican opponents they will have faced, the club has no time for such talk.
“When you get to games like this, I don't buy into that ‘favorites’ stuff,” said Vanney. “You have to go out and execute, make plays on both ends, and give yourself the best opportunity to win. They're a big club with a lot of pride; they're going to come out fighting. We have to be ready for that.”