Mexico’s Tigres beat TFC to win inaugural Campeones Cup

lucas_zelarrayan_and_michael_bradley_slide_for_the_ball

UANL Tigres midfielder Lucas Zelarrayan (8) and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley (4) slide to the ball during second half Campeones Cup soccer action in Toronto on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (Frank Gunn/CP)

• Tigres 3 (Dueñas 36’, 64’; Zavaleta OG 66’), Toronto FC 1 (Janson 86’)
• Tigres wins battle of MLS and Liga MX champions
• Jesús Dueñas’s double for Tigres sinks TFC

TORONTO — It’s still early, but the Campeones Cup faces an uphill battle for relevancy.

Tigres earned a convincing 3-1 win over Toronto FC on Wednesday in the inaugural competition contested between the reigning champions of MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX. One wonders, though, about its future based on this initial contest.

Major League Soccer went into full-hype mode ahead of this match, plugging it endlessly on its official website and social media accounts, and pushing it as a major event. The end product didn’t live up the billing, the sparks expected to fly between the standard bearers of North America’s top two leagues never materializing. It was a pretty drab match with few moments of genuine entertainment, played out by two sides who looked like they had other things on their minds.

Only 14,823 fans showed up for this game, and the upper deck of the East Stand was closed, resulting in a half-empty BMO Field devoid of genuine atmosphere. The ending was anti-climatic, with Tigres hoisting the trophy amidst fireworks going off in the background as fans quietly headed for the exits.

“It’s a cool event. MLS and Liga MX did a nice job of putting the whole thing together and it definitely has potential,” Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono offered.

Teammate Nick Hagglund agreed.

“I think it’s a great thing for both leagues to put on a little show for the rest of the world to see. … I think it’s an event that over the years will have a lot of meaning,” Hagglund said.

Maybe this annual meeting of the best of MLS and Liga MX will someday be meaningful. Time will only tell. Every sporting event starts from humble beginnings, and few are instant successes. A handful of nations turned down the opportunity to play at the first World Cup in 1930 because they didn’t want to take the three-week boat ride to Uruguay. It takes time for a new competition to build history and interest. Patience is required.

On paper the Campeones Cup is a very good idea. Anything that further flames the heated rivalry between the two leagues should be applauded, and they lucked out with this matchup for the inaugural championship – TFC and Tigres battled to a thrilling quarterfinal in the Concacaf Champions league back in March, a series the Reds won on the away goals rule.

But the scheduling leaves a lot to be desired. Could this match not have taken place last month, or during the 2019 pre-season? Why wait until September, when the MLS campaign is in its final stretch? Wednesday’s match couldn’t come at a worse time for a Toronto side fighting to stay alive in the MLS playoff race, and with a big road game against the New York Red Bulls this weekend. It was also ill-timed for Tigres, who take on city rivals Monterrey on Sunday in an important Liga MX match.

“The event is interesting. The timing of it is always going to be [an issue] in terms of finding the right time of the year to play an event like this. But it’s interesting to have the two champions play each other; it’s just a tough time of year for us right now,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney admitted.

Reds midfielder Marky Delgado said he liked the concept of the Campeones Cup, but felt that the two leagues have to find a better time during the year to hold it.

“I wouldn’t play it mid-season, I can tell you that. … There’s still a lot of things to sort out,” Delgado said.

He later added: “As a player, [playing the game in September] doesn’t make sense, but the leagues want to throw it in there. You can’t do anything about it, except play it out.”

Both teams fielded full-strength starting lineups, with exceptions: Victor Vazquez of TFC and Tigres’ Enner Valencia were on the bench. Toronto captain Michael Bradley shifted from midfield to play in the centre of a three-man defence to start the game. Toronto defender Auro Jr., who has been sidelined since early August with a hamstring injury, looked solid in a 25-minute appearance as a second-half substitute.

A tame and non-descript first half came to life when Juninho played a great pass over the top for Jesús Dueñas, who broke in on goal with Bradley tracking him and fired a shot that beat Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono at the near-post. Toronto’s lone scoring chance came at the half-hour mark when Canadian Jay Chapman’s header from the edge of the six-yard box off a corner kick rattled off the crossbar.

Toronto forward Sebastian Giovinco was subbed out before halftime due to calf cramping, and was replaced by Lucas Janson.

Tigres nearly doubled their advantage after the re-start, with Jesus Vargas firing a low shot that hit the post after a poor giveaway by TFC defender Gregory van der Wiel.

Dueñas put the game away with a low, blistering shot from 25 yards that whizzed past Bono after Toronto couldn’t clear a Tigres corner kick. The Reds’ misery was compounded two minutes later via an own-goal by defender Eriq Zavaleta as he attempted to clear Valencia’s centering pass.

Janson converted from the penalty spot late in the game to salvage some pride for Toronto after Dueñas was called for a hand-ball.

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