TORONTO – Let’s not mince words when it comes to Toronto FC‘s playoff hopes.
Nine months after hoisting the MLS Cup at BMO Field, TFC is in serious danger of failing to qualify for the post-season after stumbling their way through a regular season riddled with injuries, defensive issues and inconsistent play.
Toronto (8-14-6) sits ninth in the Eastern Conference, nine points and three spots back of the Montreal Impact, who hold down the sixth and final playoff berth in the East. In all likelihood, TFC will have to win all of their remaining six matches just to have a chance at the playoffs, and even that might not be enough.
Complicating matters for Toronto ahead of its crucial road game against the New York Red Bulls this weekend is Wednesday night’s match at BMO Field against Mexican side Tigres in the inaugural Campeones Cup. The timing of this new competition, contested between the reigning champions of MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, couldn’t come at a worse moment for a TFC side fighting to stay alive in the MLS playoff race.
But former U.S. international star Herculez Gomez, who played for both TFC and Tigres during his career, believes a victory on Wednesday could give Toronto the momentum it needs to secure a playoff berth. The key, according to Gomez, is for Toronto to find the same fighting spirit it used to defeat Tigres and fellow Mexican side Club America en route to reaching the finals of the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year.
“If Toronto can win against Tigres, they can use this as a jumpstart to make the playoffs,” Gomez told Sportsnet.
“Toronto FC has to be the Toronto FC that beat Club America, that got by Tigres. … They have to be that team, and if they can be that team, I’m telling you this is the beginning. Come [next year’s] Champions League, all of these Liga MX teams will be on notice. …. If they can beat Tigres and somehow squeak into the playoffs, I don’t think there’s a single team in MLS that would be excited to play them.”
The Campeones Cup is an important part of an ongoing collaboration between MLS and Liga MX that both leagues believe will strengthen their popularity and overall imprint. The hope is that this will also further flame the heated rivalry between MLS and Liga MX sides, especially ahead of next year’s Concacaf Champions League.
In that regard, they couldn’t have asked for a better matchup, as these teams faced off against each other in a wildly entertaining series in the quarterfinals of the 2018 Concacaf Champions League – TFC prevailed over two legs on away goals after the aggregate score ended 4-4.
Working as a Spanish-language commentator for ESPN Deportes, Gomez witnessed firsthand the respect that TFC garnered in Mexico during its run to the Champions League final.
“What I saw from the Champions League, and the reaction Toronto FC got from the media, the press and the fans in Mexico, I was blown away. I’d never see them respect a team from Major League Soccer like they did with Toronto. Toronto FC is a team that is respected in Mexico,” Gomez stated.
Of course, it’s not just the MLS versus Liga MX dynamic that is at work in the Campeones Cup. Also at play are the socio-political tensions that have historically tinged battles between Mexico and the U.S. – and to a lesser extent – the Canadian national team.
“Mexico, in general as a footballing country, does not want to lose in anything to the ‘gringos.’ It doesn’t matter if they’re from Canada or from the States, they categorize them that way. [The Campeones Cup] means something to Tigres. It’s another notch on their belt. If Tigres loses to this Toronto side, they will be embarrassed in Mexico. This is a game that they want to win,” Gomez offered.
Gomez, 36, was born to Mexican-American parents and grew up in Las Vegas before making his MLS debut with the LA Galaxy in 2003. Two years later, he was a regular starter for L.A., helping the Galaxy win the MLS Cup. He also spent time in MLS with Toronto, Seattle, Colorado and Kansas City.
Gomez moved to Mexico in 2010 when he signed with Puebla and ended up spending five years in Liga MX, which included stints with Pachuca, Tecos, Santo Laguna, Tijuana and Tigres.
“When I got to Mexico, my first week there, Salvador Cabanas, a very famous player for Club America, was shot in the head in a bar, and I said to myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I was terrified. But when I lived there and realized how great the country is, how amazing the people were, I was put at ease much more. And the football in Liga MX top notch,” Gomez explained.
Even though he could speak Spanish and was of Mexican heritage, Gomez did not get a free pass when he arrived at Puebla.
“It didn’t matter if I was an American or not. Anybody who is not of that club is considered a foreigner and have to prove themselves. There were times my own teammates wouldn’t pass me the ball or talk to me, because I was viewed as an outsider threatening someone’s position, so you had to prove yourself. But once you do, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, you’re a gringo, but you’re our gringo.’ That’s the way it went for me,” Gomez offered.
Gomez’s tenure with Santos Laguna was marked by the team’s run to the 2013 Concacaf Champions League final – they lost to fellow Mexican side Monterrey – which included a semifinal showdown against TFC.
Tensions boiled over in the first leg, a 1-1 draw at BMO Field, and Santos used that to their advantage ahead of the return match in Mexico.
“There was a bit of a scuffle between [Santos forward] Darwin Quintero and [TFC defender] Ashtone Morgan, the benches cleared, and security guards manhandled a few of my teammates. Things got so heated and so testy that in the return leg in Mexico that our assistant coach, who was usually so quiet and docile, gave us this passionate pep talk and said, ‘They have [American] football, they have baseball, they have basketball, they have hockey – this sport is ours! This is ours,’ and everyone went out onto the pitch like gladiators,” Gomez recalled
“And I remember saying to them, ‘Guys, it’s Toronto, Canada!’ But they don’t see it that way. They see it as playing against the gringos. Down south, nobody wants to lose to the gringos.”