Chivas, Almeyda thrive in clutch as CONCACAF Champions League awaits
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- There has been nothing but silence from Chivas and Toronto in the buildup to the CONCACAF Champions League final second leg in Estadio Akron, at least up until Tuesday's news conference.
Chivas' training sessions at Verde Valle have been behind closed doors, while the core of Toronto's squad has been staying at a hotel next to Guadalajara's plushest shopping mall since this past Friday, adapting to the hot conditions in the western Mexico city and training at Atlas' facilities. Not a word has been ushered to the local press from either side and the hermetic nature of preparations is in line with the importance of this competition for both clubs. The pressure is on as what has been one of the most memorable editions of the tournament comes to its finale.
Chivas coach Matias Almeyda made the CONCACAF Champions League a priority at the start of the season and although the Argentine was bitterly disappointed that his club wasn't involved in the Copa Libertadores, the prospect of reaching the Club World Cup with a team made up of all Mexican players provided all the impetus they needed.
Almeyda was careful not to sound in any way over-confident in the immediate aftermath of Chivas' 2-1 win last Tuesday in the first leg of the final. There is a deep respect for Toronto, its achievements so far in the competition in knocking out Tigres and Club America, as well as the individual talent on a team in which $18 million is currently splashed out annually on three Designated Players.
Almeyda is a shrewd motivator. He may be from Argentina but quickly tapped into the nationalistic appeal of the Guadalajara club and uses the fact his team plays only with Mexicans to fire the players and fans up before big games. That line of motivation is arguably even more prevalent in a continental tournament against a side that may well be the best MLS team ever.
There should be no doubting how much this trophy means to Chivas. The Liga MX club rested players for the CCL even when making the playoffs in the league wasn't an unrealistic goal, provoking much criticism in the Mexican press.
Chivas' outlook on Wednesday won't be too dissimilar to the first leg although the return of goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, center-back Jair Pereira and left-back Edwin Herrera will freshen up and bring much-needed experience to the team. Toronto must score twice to have any chance to win the trophy but Chivas' goal will be to attempt to put pressure on Toronto, stop the Canadian side playing and score themselves.
Chivas have only conceded two goals all tournament but this series is certainly not over. There is a fragility about Chivas and Toronto will believe they have the players to exploit it. The Guadalajara team has won just seven of 33 league games since defeating Tigres to win the 2017 Clausura and hasn't won a league game at home since Oct. 28. If Liga MX had a Europe-style season instead of two short seasons, Chivas would be entering the final weekend battling to stay up on Saturday against Leon.
But if there is one trait that Almeyda has instilled in this team, it is that when it gets the scent of a trophy it seems to come to life, as we have seen so far in the 2018 CCL.
Since Almeyda came to the club in Sept. 2015 and announced he would awaken the "sleeping giant," Chivas have won one Liga MX title, two Copa MX wins and a Supercopa MX. Despite the recent poor run in the league, it's actually one of the most successful periods in the club's history.
If a Chivas team returning to near full-strength do hold against Toronto, the celebration of the club's first international title since 1962 will be interesting. The players are reportedly at odds with the directors over a lack of bonus payments and they protested via social media over the weekend.
It is unlikely to get in the way or affect the squad ahead of this final. If anything, it has brought the players and coaching staff closer. Lose, however, and the rifts within the club would likely open up pretty quickly.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.