CONCACAF Champions League final: Do Toronto or Chivas have the edge?
The CONCACAF Champions League final will be a battle of Major League Soccer vs. Liga MX, as Toronto FC and Chivas will do battle over two legs, with the first game on Tuesday at BMO Field. How did these two teams get here, and what are their chances of going on to win it all? ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall take a first look ahead of the final.
1. How did each team reach the final?
Jeff Carlisle: After disposing of the Colorado Rapids in the round of 16, Toronto has taken out two Liga MX heavyweights in Tigres and Club America. The team did so by staying true to its style of keeping the ball on the ground and rarely bunkering in. TFC manager Greg Vanney has been tactically flexible, using both four-man and three-man backlines, depending what the situation called for.
Of course it helps to have players such as Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore delivering the goals at critical moments, but this has been a true team effort. Supporting players such as Jonathan Osorio have popped up for vital tallies, while Marky Delgado has provided a steady two-way presence. The defense led by Drew Moor has done its part as well, and Alex Bono has delivered some superb saves when called upon, in particular during the second leg of the semifinal series against America.
Michael Bradley continues to be the hub around much of what TFC does. He's the player to initiate the attack, and he provides some overall steady defense so long as he has help nearby. This is a Toronto team that is deep in all positions and is already being hailed as the best team in MLS history. A victory in the final against Chivas will put that claim beyond any doubts that might still linger.
Tom Marshall: Chivas reached the final thanks to their solid defense, grit and determination. It hasn't been at all pretty, and at times the team has looked like a shadow of the one that swept to the Liga MX 2017 Clausura title, memorably overcoming Tigres in the final.
Chivas' approach has been more cautious than is usually associated with coach Matias Almeyda, which has been a surprise. There was a distinctly pragmatic feel to the team in the semifinal second leg against New York Red Bulls, as players wasted time early on. Almeyda's pregame comments about wanting to play with three center-backs and on the counter -- before he learned of Jair Pereira's suspension -- said a lot about how the Guadalajara manager is thinking.
But putting the aesthetics to one side, Chivas haven't conceded in 282 minutes during the competition and deserve praise for finding a way past two tricky opponents in the Seattle Sounders and the Red Bulls. It has been a case of getting the job done for Chivas and against the odds, given that the team has been poor in league play this year.
2. How can they plot their way to victory in the final?
JC: More than anything, TFC needs to regain a bit of health. Toronto's aforementioned depth is a key reason that it has progressed this far. At one stage against Club America, TFC was down five starters, with Chris Mavinga, Victor Vasquez, Ager Aketxe, Gregory van der Wiel and Altidore all sidelined. TFC hasn't missed a beat, as the likes of Ashtone Morgan, Nico Hasler, Tosaint Ricketts and Osorio have filled in capably and at times spectacularly.
But one wonders if the possible loss of Altidore for the first leg might be a case of Toronto sustaining one injury too many. It's one thing to rely on Ricketts with a multi-goal lead in the second leg and quite another to be depending on him for goals heading into the series. The backline needs to heal as well, as Bradley was forced to drop into defense during the second leg against Club America when van der Wiel was sidelined.
Otherwise, TFC just needs to play its game. Chivas isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, and the Reds have shown they can get goals against Liga MX's best teams. But Chivas have proven themselves a defensive force, so falling behind isn't an option for Toronto.
TM: You could argue that Chivas have the ability to make Toronto's task even more difficult than Tigres and Club America, at least given what we saw from the Guadalajara team against the Sounders and Red Bulls. In the second leg of both the quarters and the semis, the Mexican sides were chasing the series and leaving space between the lines for TFC to exploit. A player such as Giovinco needs no invitation when space is on offer.
The losses of suspended center-back Pereira and goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota for the first leg in Toronto represent a big blow for Chivas. It'll likely be a game not too dissimilar to the one Chivas just played against the Red Bulls: respect Toronto's attack a little more than Tigres and America did, sit back, let the MLS champion come at you and restrict the space that Giovinco and Osorio try to burst around the box.
3. How much would victory mean to each team?
JC: History beckons for Toronto. While MLS teams have twice claimed a continental title, both wins came back in the days when the tournament was held in a single, U.S.-based venue. Performing in front of hostile crowds at altitude wasn't required. In fact, both D.C. United (1998) and the LA Galaxy (2000) were able to stay close to home in claiming the title, then known as the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Since then, MLS teams have failed to make much headway in the competition, with only Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) reaching the final. There have been some blowouts against Liga MX sides along the way, and with MLS aiming to increase its international profile, having one of its teams claim the CCL would be a tangible sign of the progress it is making.
A Toronto victory would also raise the bar for the rest of the league as well. Sure, some teams such as the New York Red Bulls have found success focusing on the academy and USL pipelines, but if the rest of MLS wants to compete at Toronto's level, it needs to devote considerable financial resources both on and off the field and maximize the various player acquisition mechanisms.
TM: Chivas haven't won a CONCACAF trophy since 1962, and for an institution that considers itself the biggest and greatest in Mexico, that fact isn't very glorious.
A lot of the talk about Chivas in the CCL has surrounded the club's poor form this Clausura and the 2017 Apertura. While obviously true, that narrative has negated their pedigree and ability to reach finals since Almeyda took over in September 2015. This is Chivas' seventh final in that time, making it (aside from the campeonisimo team of the 1950s and 60s) one of the most successful periods ever for Chivas. Problems inside the club have also seemed to create a divide between the players and coaching staff on one side and certain directors on the other. The positive is that the friction seems to have brought unity and even more incentive for the players to win the title in spite of the alleged lack of bonus payments and subpar traveling conditions of late.
Let's not forget the nationalistic sentiment here. Chivas point out at every opportunity that only Mexicans can play for the club. Winning the regional tournament would be a source of a lot of pride for fans.
4. Early prediction for the final
JC: For the first time since the round of 16, Toronto enters the series as the favorite. If the Reds can get some of their injured players back, that sentiment only increases. But Chivas have proven to be a tough team to break down, conceding just a solitary goal in six CCL matches. Much will depend on Altidore's availability. If he can go, look for TFC to prevail with a home win and a draw on the road. Otherwise, the margins will shrink, with penalties deciding the outcome. Even then, I like Toronto to come out on top.
TM: Usually the question of which team is "favorite" for a game or series is pretty boring, but in this case, the opposite is true. Do you go with Toronto, which has already gotten past two Liga MX sides better than Chivas on paper? Or do you go with the team representing a nation that has won the past 12 editions of this tournament and closes out the series at home?
Given the resilience and focus it has shown so far, I'd have to go with Toronto, but it's likely to be tight.