Estadio Azteca is one of the cathedrals of world soccer.
It was at the iconic stadium in Mexico City where Diego Maradona scored the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century” against England in 1986. Italy defeated West Germany in the semifinals of the 1970 World Cup at the Azteca in an epic match that is regarded by many pundits as the greatest in the tournament’s history.
Azteca has hosted two World Cup finals, and many of the sport’s biggest stars (from Pele and Maradona to Michel Platini and Zico) have played on its hallowed pitch at one time or another.
All of this is not lost on Jonathan Osorio, who will play at the Azteca for the first time on Tuesday night when Toronto FC faces Club America in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
Born in Toronto, Osorio has earned 20 caps for the Canadian national team, but he has yet to have the pleasure of playing at Azteca. Priding himself as a student of the sport’s history, Osorio will be looking forward to achieving a “bucket list” moment on Tuesday night.
“Estadio Azteca has so much history. The best players have played there, World Cups have been won there, huge games have been played there,” Osorio told Sportsnet.
“It’s going to be a special experience, but I can’t let the moment get to me. You have to stay in the moment, and focus and remember that there is a game to be played. After you get job done, then you can look back and say, ‘wow,’ and cross Estadio Azteca off the bucket list.”
Toronto coach Greg Vanney knows all about Azteca, having played there as a member of the U.S. national team. It can be an intimidating place for visiting teams, but he doesn’t believe his players will be overwhelmed.
“It’s a grandiose atmosphere. The stadium is enormous and it just feels large. That’s one of the challenges for players, just getting beyond the fact that this a is a very big stadium. At the end of the day, though, the pitch is rectangular and grass, and we just have to focus on executing our game plan,” Vanney told Sportsnet.
With a seating capacity of 87,523 spectators, the cavernous stadium can become a deafening cauldron at times.
“It’s just a constant wall of sound. The vuvuzelas, the chants from fans, the songs – there’s a buzzing noise that is just nonstop for the entire match. You have to tune that out,” Vanney offered.
A HUGE MOMENT FOR TFC
TFC has been in this position before, having reached the semifinals of the 2011-12 Champions League.
After finishing second in its opening, round-robin group, TFC bested David Beckham and the LA Galaxy in the two-legged quarterfinals – the teams played to a 2-2 draw before 47,658 fans at the Rogers Centre before TFC won the second leg in Los Angeles. Toronto earned a 1-1 draw at home against Mexican side Santos Laguna in the opening match of the semifinals, but then lost the return match 6-2 in Torreon.
“The franchise has been here once before, but I think with all due respect to that team and the situation back then, this is even bigger. They played against a Santos Laguna club that was big at the time, but this is Club America, the biggest club in Mexico, and I would say the second-best club in Mexico at the moment,” Osorio said.
“It’s also huge because of MLS and its growth. We represent MLS, as well as Canada. There’s lots on the line for us to prove ourselves, and we have a big opportunity to do so.”
A 1-0 LOSS GOOD ENOUGH FOR TFC
TFC has the edge going into Tuesday’s tilt after earning a 3-1 win at home in last week’s first leg.
That victory means the Reds can advance to the final with a win or a draw. Even a 1-0 loss on Tuesday night would be enough for Toronto to move on. Club America, on the other hand, needs to win by at least two goals.
If the Mexican side leads 3-1 after 90 minutes of regulation time, the two sides will be tied on aggregate (3-3) and have the same amount of road goals. Instead of playing 30 minutes of extra time, the teams would go straight to a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
“They will play far more aggressively, at least at the start of the game, to push the tempo and create some transitions, and try to make life difficult for us by pressing,” Vanney said.
MORE FROM VANNEY ON HERRERA’S COMMENTS
Club America coach Miguel Herrera made headlines after last week’s loss when he accused Toronto police officers of assaulting two of his players and an assistant coach during a halftime skirmish in the tunnel leading back to the locker rooms at BMO Field.
Vanney saw it completely different, refuting Herrera’s claims of assault by local police.
“I was front and centre, and I saw everything. … Just in defence of the Toronto police, I’m going to disagree with him strongly because that’s not what happened,” Vanney stated at the time.
Nearly a week has passed, and Vanney believes Herrera was offside with his accusations.
“I think a lot of his comments were to try to sidetrack from the result. It’s just to change the dialogue, and I think that’s all he was doing. In my opinion, it’s socially irresponsible in this day and age to be talking about the police like that when it’s just not accurate. It’s beyond soccer, and it’s unacceptable,” Vanney stated.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR TORONTO?
The winner of this series meets the winner of the other semifinal between the New York Red Bulls and Mexican side Club Deportivo Guadalajara in the two-legged final later this month.
Guadalajara won the first leg 1-0 at home. The return match is Tuesday night at Red Bull Arena.
After Tuesday’s match in Mexico, TFC will fly directly to Denver ahead of Saturday’s MLS road game against the Colorado Rapids.