GUADALAJARA, Mexico – For a man who just saw the chance to win the CONCACAF Champions League title slip through his fingers, Greg Vanney had a look of satisfaction on his face on Wednesday night.
Shortly after Toronto FC’s loss to Chivas de Guadalajara in a heartbreaking shootout in the decisive second leg of the final, the Reds’ coach strode into the press conference room deep in the bowels of Estadio Akron where the media were waiting to pepper him with questions.
Vanney was the very picture of calm as he fielded every query, including the one from a Mexican reporter who asked if Chivas was lucky to win out in the end, on account of Toronto midfielder Marky Delgado’s blatant miss in front of goal in injury time that could have sealed a historic win for the MLS side.
“I’m not a big believer in luck, I’m a believer in execution. … It’s unfortunate that we didn’t execute in the moment. I don’t think it’s about luck for Chivas. We have to make them pay in that moment, and we didn’t,” Vanney offered.
As TFC’s coach continued to answer questions, a small and subtle smile crept across his lips. It seemed an odd reaction from Vanney in light of the final result, but when you consider how Toronto performed on the night and throughout this tournament, you can understand where he was coming from.
Clubs from Mexico’s Liga MX have dominated the Champions League, winning every tournament since the inaugural event in 2008-09. Only two previous MLS sides (Real Salt Lake in 2011 and the Montreal Impact in 2015) ever made it to the final, but this was different.
What Toronto FC did in this year’s competition was special. Mexican outfits Tigres and Club America – not just two of the best teams in Mexico, but two of the best on the entire continent – were put to the sword by TFC in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Despite dealing with significant injuries to starters Justin Morrow, Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez, the Reds continued to find a way to get the results they needed as the Champions League dragged on.
Then on Wednesday night, plagued again by a major injury crisis that left them without a single centre back, and forced to play captain Michael Bradley out of position in the middle of defence, TFC came up with one of the best performances in franchise history, continuing what has been the best run by any MLS team in the history of the Champions League.
Bradley was philosophical about the loss, heralding his teammates for playing with “bravery and pride.”
“Disappointed, but very, very, very proud. [This is a] team full of warriors that spilled their guts on the field tonight. It would have been so easy to make excuses. So many other teams would have lost their way. But throughout the entire tournament, we just kept going, we kept competing, we kept playing, we were fearless, and in the biggest moments we f—— went for it. That’s all you can ask for,” Bradley said.
Vanney was also full of praise for his team, the character it showed against, historically, one of the top teams in Mexico, and playing in the intimidating cauldron that is the Estadio Akron.
“I have no complaints from my team. We worked hard. This tournament has been a grind, and we battled all the way until the end. … I have nothing to say to my guys except that I’m proud of them and they worked hard,” Vanney offered.
Indeed, the Reds made Mexican teams stand up and take notice of them, unlike how any MLS side has ever previously done in this tournament. They also helped to bring genuine intrigue and competition to a tournament that has sorely been lacking in those two departments for the longest time. The CONCACAF Champions League has been revitalized, in no small part due to the play of the greatest MLS team of all time.
With this in the back of their minds, both Toronto’s coach and captain confidently delivered a simple post-game message: We will be back.
This isn’t a one-off. CONCACAF glory can elude TFC for only so long. History, if nothing else, tells us that.
The story of Toronto FC is simple one, a tale of a team who continually dusts itself off and gets back up after being knocked down to ground and having its nose rubbed in the dirt.
For the longest time, TFC was the laughingstock of MLS, forever getting it wrong both on and off the field, always shooting itself in the foot, and lurching from one self-inflicted crisis to another. New dawns quickly petered out, reboots failed, and “the Bloody Big Deal” didn’t live up to the hype.
Slowly, the organization began to get it right. Having the largest payroll in the league played a major role in the turnaround, but it wasn’t the only major reason. The astute hiring of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and Vanney made a difference, as the pair has put together the deepest roster in MLS history.
And yet, there were still setbacks. The humbling 3-0 loss away to the Montreal Impact in 2015 in the club’s first ever playoff appearance. Losing to the Seattle Sounders in a penalty shootout in the 2016 MLS Cup final at BMO Field.
Each time, Toronto FC bounced back, and set things right the following season, capped off by a historic 2017 campaign that saw the Reds set the record for most points in a regular season, win the Supporters’ Shield, repeat as Canadian champions, and hoist the MLS Cup.
Resiliency, more than anything else, has become TFC’s greatest character trait, something Bradley feels will help them to eventually be crowned Champions League winners.
“I’m absolutely convinced and sure that if we can continue on this path there’s going to be more trophies,” Bradley said.
“Everything that we have been out would give you complete confidence that we’re going to use this to make us even more determined and make sure that we continue on the path we’re on.”