TORONTO – When the Campeones Cup kicks off on Wednesday night at BMO Field, recollections of a chilly night six months earlier will flood to mind.
On Wednesday, March 7, the same two teams – Toronto FC and Tigres UANL, met in the same stadium for the first leg of the 2018 Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal.
Having gotten past MLS opposition, the Colorado Rapids, in the Round of 16, Tigres offered Toronto a first true taste of international competition. A fever set in.
Even now, with all that has come between, the memories of those matches resound.
“For me, everything,” said Jozy Altidore in the pre-match press conference on Tuesday of his fondest moments from that epic run to the CCL final. “I can't wait to play it again.”
“I was curious to see what it would be like, watching from Europe for a long time, watching the MLS teams compete. But to play in it, it's another level,” continued Altidore. “To go to these Mexican teams; fantastic stadiums; everything is upped a notch: pressure, expectation.”
“We relish that; stepped our game up to it,” added Altidore. “Everybody is itching to have another chance for it. I can't wait to play in that competition.”
With the Rapids dispatched, Tigres represented a serious challenge, with some going so far as to call the series a potential final pairing.
“They were tough games,” said Eriq Zavaleta. “They're a team that can punish you for little mistakes. It was two good teams going at each other. I expect it to be the same on Wednesday.”
Tigres took the lead in the 52nd minute through Eduardo Vargas, sending a first-time effort across Alex Bono and into the far-corner when he got in behind the Toronto back-line. But TFC stormed back with Altidore responding the 60th minute, holding off a defender to turn on a Marky Delgado ball and pick out the bottom corner, and Jonathan Osorio back-heeling in Sebastian Giovinco's near-post ball for the game-winner in the 89th minute to give TFC a 2-1 lead heading down to Mexico.
“To start the game we were a touch tentative, unsure, uncertain of their level compared to ours: what is this team going to do, what are they going to look like,” recalled Greg Vanney. “It took us 15-20 minutes to realize we could play with them.”
“Once we [did], we took over the game in many ways,” continued Vanney. “Played smart. The conditions were tough, so we played quite aggressive and pretty direct. We were able to press them and make the game difficult on them; get a lead going down there.”
With the tie balanced on a knife's edge, the second leg would be played on March 13 at Estadio Universitario, better known as, El Volcan.
It was a trip into the unknown for TFC.
“Because we played that first game here and were able to put the game on our terms, get the advantage, it gave us a lot confidence as we went down to their place,” explained Vanney. “Playing in their stadium, walking out on field – even the day before, taking in the ambiance – our guys were confident, but still unsure of the environment and how the night would look being in Champions League on the road in Mexico.”
Tigres had lost the first leg, but gotten the crucial away goal, so the first strike on the night would be key. If Tigres tallied, the score would level at twos and they would have the advantage with the away goal. If TFC did, that away goal would be cancelled and Tigres would need to score twice to send the match to extra time.
“We stayed organized, it was loud, an incredible environment,” relayed Vanney. “Very different from MLS: the continuous singing and chanting. The volume was – they call it the volcano for a reason – it was quite loud. Our guys did a fantastic job of managing the game, staying compact, managing the lead and found opportunities to extend [it].”
There were plenty of twists and turns, half-chances and key plays on both sides through the opening hour, but the decisive moment would come in the 64th minute when Giovinco worked in down the left-side of the box.
His pass towards Altidore in the middle put Tigres under pressure, forcing Rafael Carioca to touch it into his own goal. 3-1 to TFC.
The home side would respond, again through Vargas, in the 69th minute from a corner kick to make it 3-2, but four minutes later Giovinco would deliver the killer blow with a jaw-dropping free-kick in the 73rd minute that reinstated Toronto's two-goal advantage at 4-2.
With two away goals for TFC, Tigres would need to score three more to tip the balance.
And they nearly did with Andre-Pierre Gignac scoring in the 84th minute and from the penalty spot in the 93rd minute before time ran out.
“The unfortunate part was we relaxed a little after we scored the two goals and, in some ways, knew with 15 minutes to go, had a sense, that this thing was done,” said Vanney. “They got one that turned the momentum and then we ended up, at the end, scrambling.”
When the final whistle blew, TFC were the ones left standing.
.@torontofc just eliminated a team that in four years has:— herculez gomez (@herculezg) March 14, 2018
3 Liga MX 🏆 🏆🏆
1 Copa MX 🏆
1 Copa Libertadores 🥈
2 Liga MX 🥈🥈
2 CCL 🥈🥈
And one of the most expensive rosters in the America’s.
Greg Vanney and his organization deserve all the accolades. #TFC #CCL 🍁
“It meant that we didn't win the game, which is what I really wanted,” added Vanney. “Not just to go through, but to beat the champions in their stadium... would have been a phenomenal statement. Going through was a big enough statement in and of itself.”
“We learned a lot about ourselves on that day for that tournament,” concluded Vanney. “It carried us through Mexico City, to victory in Guadalajara, even though weren't able to win in a shootout.”
Those were heady days, though in the end, the ultimate aim did not come to pass.
“For sure the free-kick from Seba in Mexico,” smiled Victor Vazquez of his favourite moment. “It was amazing, an important goal. After Tigres, America was an amazing game, what we did in Azteca. All that we did in Concacaf was amazing, until the penalty kicks.... It's football. We have to accept it.”
Toronto will be back, having secured their spot with a third-straight Voyageurs Cup. Another shot at that continental glory must wait for next season, but Wednesday night, though not the same, offers a chance to remember.
“The whole run, not only against Tigres, but America and Chivas as well,” said Osorio, who launched his stellar season with the Golden Boot in Concacaf. “The thing I most remember are the atmospheres, even in our games here.”
Toronto had to run the gauntlet in the Champions League. Before them, in MLS play, lies a different one, but, again, there are parallels.
“The feeling in the group to get up for these games was exciting. For a lot of us, it was our first time in that tournament, to play internationally. You really get to see where you stand,” summed up Osorio. “We proved we stand with the best. [Wednesday is] another chance to prove that again.”