Chivas fighting for pride vs. TFC in Champions League final

Toronto FC's Drew Moor (3) rises above Guadalajara's Carlos Salcido. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – They were slow to hop on the bandwagon, but fans of Chivas Guadalajara are now fully onboard ahead of one of the biggest matches in the fabled Mexican team’s long and rich history.

Chivas enters the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Toronto FC on Wednesday with the distinct advantage. A 2-1 win at BMO Field in last week’s opener of this aggregate series means the Mexican outfit only needs a draw in the return match. Even a 1-0 loss would be enough for the Mexicans to be crowned the kings of the continent.

Formed in 1906, Chivas is one of the biggest and most successful teams in Mexico. Alongside bitter rivals Club America from the nation’s capital, Chivas has won record-12 league titles, its latest coming in 2017 which ended an 11-year drought.

But the Guadalajara team has fallen on hard times since then. Chivas currently sits in second-last place (out of 18 teams) in Mexico’s Liga MX standings, and was recently eliminated from playoff contention for a second consecutive campaign.

While rivals Club America, Tigres and Tijuana bowed out earlier in the Champions League, Chivas made it to the final, thus ensuring Mexican representation in each championship game since the inaugural tournament held in 2008-09. But it was though fans didn’t take notice of Chivas’ impressive form in Champions League while the team was simultaneously fighting for its life on the domestic front.

Now that Chivas’ Liga MX playoff dreams have ended, supporters are firmly focused on Wednesday’s second leg, as their beloved team attempts to win its first Champions League crown.

“There’s a definite buzz in the city. This Champions League run has come as a little bit of a surprise for Chivas fans,” said Tom Marshall, a Guadalajara-based correspondent for ESPN.com.

“When you look at the four Mexican teams in this competition, Chivas would have been third or fourth in the rankings. With Chivas not doing well in Liga MX, it was all doom and gloom in Guadalajara before beating the Red Bulls [in the Champions League semifinals]. But after scraping by New York and getting that win in Toronto last week, it woke everybody up.”

Club America won the Champions League in 2015 and 2016. It also won the old CONCACAF Champions’ Cup five times. Chivas lone international title came in 1962 when it won the first Champions’ Cup.

Regarded as Mexican soccer’s most popular team, Chivas’ lack of international honours has long been a sore spot for them, especially in light of Club America’s success.

“Chivas boasts it has 40 million fans, so the club is a massive institution. But they haven’t won a CONCACAF title since the 1960s. For a team the size of Chivas, that’s not good enough. There’s a real longing to win that first trophy,” Marshall explained.

He later added: “The other element of this is that Toronto FC knocked out Club America in the semifinals, and that’s Chivas’ biggest rival. Chivas are looking at this as going one better than America if they can finish the job against Toronto on Wednesday. That’s very important from a Chivas perspective.”

Winning the Champions League goes beyond bragging rights, beyond the ability for either Chivas or TFC to proclaim itself as the best team in North America. The winner of this competition also automatically qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup, an annual tournament featuring the six continental club champions, including the winners of this year’s UEFA Champions League. The 2018 FIFA Club World Cup is scheduled for Dec. 12-22 in the United Arab Emirates.

Getting to the FIFA Club World Cup, and conceivably playing against a team the calibre of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, would be a source of great pride for any Liga MX side.

Marshall argues that pride would burn brightest within Chivas because of its unique philosophy. While Club America and other Liga MX teams splash big money on foreign stars, Chivas is the only team in Mexico to exclusively field Mexican players.

“This fans base is absolute desperate to win [the Champions League]. If Chivas can get to the FIFA Club World Cup, the fact they’ll do it entirely with an all-Mexico squad would be a source of great pride. It adds an extra element for Chivas fans that this club, which only plays with Mexicans, would be representing the entire CONCACAF region on the world stage, it would mean a lot. It would mean more, than say, if Club America got there,” Marshall offered.

For Chivas, winning the Champions League and qualifying for the FIFA Club World Cup would also reaffirm the validity of their approach when it comes to player recruitment.

“Teams such as Tigres and Club America have basically spent more money than Chivas. When you only play Mexican players, it’s much more difficult. The other clubs take advantage of this by trying to buy the best Mexican stars, forcing Chivas to overpay for players. Chivas doesn’t have the option to go to South America and pick up a cheaper player who offers the same characteristics,” Marshall explained.

“They also rely heavily on their youth system. Against Toronto in the first leg, six of the starting 11 came out of their academy. The fact they only play with Mexicans is a big barrier, which is why winning the Champions League would incredibly special for Chivas.”

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