Toronto FC must discover ruthless streak to beat Chivas in CCL final
TORONTO -- For the past 16 years, CONCACAF's continental club championship has been an unforgiving tournament for MLS sides. At the most critical junctures of the competition, there was a mistake made -- perhaps two -- that was ruthlessly punished. Maybe it was a loss of discipline, a missed chance, a defensive miscue or even a bad call. But ultimately, MLS sides would succumb.
That history is what makes Toronto FC's run to the final this year so compelling. The Reds have been the ones to do the punishing, whether it was Sebastian Giovinco's free kick goal against Tigres, or Jonathan Osorio's timely strike against Club America, TFC made other teams pay. And even when Toronto did make mistakes, it had stockpiled enough positive plays to render the negatives inconsequential.
That is until Tuesday night's 2-1 loss in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Chivas Guadalajara, when Toronto delivered a performance reminiscent of its MLS brethren in past CCLs.
Yes, Chivas manager Matias Almeyda got his tactics spot on, from the pressing at the start to the gritty defending at the end. Yet this was a match where TFC had only itself to blame. A sloppy goal straight from a throw-in was conceded barely a minute into the match, quality scoring opportunities were squandered and a misplay from goalkeeper Alex Bono allowed Alan Pulido's swerving free-kick to settle into the Toronto net for the first-leg game-winner.
This isn't to say that Toronto has all of a sudden become a poor team -- far from it -- but its path to the CCL title was always going to be difficult. Prior to this edition of the CCL, no MLS has side had beaten two teams from Liga MX in the same tournament. To win the title, Toronto has to beat three. It speaks to how little margin for error there has been in this competition.
If there was one sequence that seemed to typify the night, it came in the 28th minute when a short pass out of the back from Chivas goalkeeper Miguel Jimenez caught his teammate looking the other way, allowing Michael Bradley to pounce. A timely intervention from Carlos Salcido, aided by what appeared to be the use of his hand, defused the threat. It was just one of those nights where TFC didn't help itself despite given numerous chances to do so.
Perhaps that's why Michael Bradley didn't seem overly distraught by what took place. The problems are fixable.
"We've got no time to worry about anything that didn't go our way tonight," said Bradley. "The response has to be strong in every way, and we're going to regroup and look at some things from this game, understand how we can tweak a few things to give ourselves an even better chance to put things in our favor even more."
But prevailing in this series will require more than just correcting mistakes. It has to force Chivas into mistakes of its own. And if there is one facet of TFC's game that can be improved it is tempo.
Chivas employs a man-marking approach to defending whereby opponents are chased all over the field, and both Bradley and coach Greg Vanney bemoaned Toronto's inability to take better advantage of the moments when one of their attackers got some separation from his opposite number.
"I thought there were times when we actually gained a bit of an advantage on our guy and we slowed the game down instead of speeding the game up at that point and creating an advantage on the other side," said Vanney. "I think those are just little things that you have to see and get used to."
Bradley added: "If you can move quickly, if you can play forward, if you can move on the other side of things, then there's space. They get pulled around, they get dragged around, and I like our chances still."
It's Toronto's job at this point to find reasons to believe but the task is daunting. TFC must score two goals at minimum over 90 minutes, something no team has done to Chivas in this tournament. Guadalajara also exposed Toronto at times on the counter in the first leg. TFC coped decently enough in that area on Tuesday, despite some anxious moments, but all it takes is one successful conversion and the series will essentially be over.
Avoiding that fate will require Toronto to reacquire its ruthless streak. If TFC does, a bit of history will be left behind and a new standard will be set.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.