Toronto FC face unfamiliar CCL final scenario: coming from behind
For the past year, Toronto FC has met every challenge in front of it. From Sebastian Giovinco's last-gasp winner to claim the Canadian Championship to the wire-to-wire procession to the Supporters Shield to the dominating MLS Cup final triumph against the Seattle Sounders, the Reds have delivered when it mattered most.
Sure, there has been a hiccup or two along the way. The Ottawa Fury actually led Toronto in the Canadian Championship after the first leg of the semifinals. Montreal inched in front on away goals during the second leg of the final. In the MLS Cup playoffs, the New York Red Bulls gave TFC all it could handle before succumbing on the away goals tiebreaker but Toronto ultimately made the necessary plays to complete a historic treble.
But on Wednesday, the ultimate test beckons.
The second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League will take place between Toronto and Chivas Guadalajara, with Toronto in the unique position -- for them at least -- of staring at a deficit from the home leg. In each of the two previous rounds, Toronto was in front heading into the away leg against Liga MX opposition. The pressure was on the other teams, who needed to take some risks in a search for goals.
Against Tigres, Toronto soaked up pressure and looked to exploit opportunities on the break, with a Rafael Carioca own-goal and a Giovinco free-kick proving enough to get through. Against Club America in the semifinals, an early Jonathan Osorio strike in the second leg put TFC firmly in control.
On Wednesday, Toronto will be the one to chasing the game instead. The 2-1 advantage Chivas has from the first leg means TFC will need to score a minimum of two goals on the night. If TFC can complete that task while keeping a clean sheet, the CCL trophy will be theirs. Anything else and the away goals calculator comes into play.
It's a task that is daunting to say the least. Chivas will welcome back three starters from suspension: goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, defender Jair Pereira and outside back Edwin Hernandez. It's not as if Chivas needs any defensive reinforcements either, as Guadalajara's goal has only been breached twice in seven CCL matches. But the returnees figure to make Chivas' defense even stronger, especially given that Pereira is Guadalajara's best header of the ball, a valuable trait given the inevitable set-pieces that Chivas figures to face. The confusion that was evident at times in the first leg figures to lessen as well with Hernandez back in the lineup in place of the inexperienced Alejandro Mayorga.
That said, Toronto certainly has the attacking personnel to pull off a comeback. Giovinco remains the key attacking force but he's had some help. Osorio has scored in each round of the tournament, and his four goals are tops in the CCL. Altidore has certainly delivered some critical goals for the Reds over the past year though he will wish he had done better with a few stellar opportunities in the first leg.
What might be the spark to push Toronto over the top is an even moderately healthy Victor Vasquez. The Spaniard was a critical component in last year's treble-winning side but has been dealing with a nerve issue in his back that sidelined him for the both legs of the semifinal, as well as the first leg of the final. Toronto manager Greg Vanney told reporters last week that Vasquez is "progressing and getting better. He's doing more things, he's more mobile than he has been."
Whether that's enough for Vasquez to return to the field is unclear. There is a question of how much rust Vasquez might have accumulated in the interim but if he can come close to replicating last year's form, even in a substitute's role, TFC will be better for it.
Of course, Toronto will also need to eliminate the defensive errors that plagued it in the first leg. They'll also need to be mindful of Chivas' prowess in transition. Chivas looked threatening from such situations in the first leg, though Toronto was able to survive those moments.
Then again, even if Toronto does all of those things, it still might not be enough; such is Chivas' defensive prowess. It will no doubt take something epic for TFC to come out on top. But Toronto has been specializing in heroic moments ever since the start of the 2017 season. Now they need to conjure up one more.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.