Heartbreak for TFC as Chivas win Concacaf Champions League

TFC

Toronto FC players stand in disbelief after team captain Michael Bradley missed the penalty shot that gave Chivas the championship of the CONCACAF Champions League final soccer match in Guadalajara, Mexico, Wednesday, April, 25, 2018. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Toronto FC 2 (Altidore 25’, Giovinco 44’), Chivas de Guadalajara 1 (Pineda 19’) – Two-games series ended 3-3 on aggregate, Chivas wins 4-2 in penalty shootout
• TFC lose CONCACAF Champions League final in a heartbreaker
• MLS still looking for its first Champions League title

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – So close. So achingly, so agonizingly, so painfully, so heartbreakingly close.

Plagued by a major injury crisis, and forced to play their captain out of position, Toronto FC came up with one of the best performances in franchise history, but it still wasn’t enough to get the better of Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara in Wednesday’s decisive second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final.

Down 2-1 after losing last week’s first leg at home, the MLS Cup champions tied the two-game series 3-3 on aggregate by taking a 2-1 lead after 90 minutes of regulation. With no extra time, Wednesday’s game went straight to a penalty shootout, where Chivas scored on all four of their attempts, while Canadian Jonathan Osorio hit the crossbar and captain Michael Bradley skied his shot over the net for TFC.

Teams from Mexico’s Liga MX have won every CONCACAF Champions League since the inaugural tournament in 2008-09. All but two of the previous finals have been all-Mexican affairs: Real Salt Lake (2011) and the Montreal Impact (2015) made it to the final before TFC joined the exclusive club this year.

Having dispatched Tigres and Club America, two of Mexico’s best teams, in the earlier rounds, TFC battled a third Mexican giant step for step on Wednesday night. The Reds were the better team on the balance of play, but in the end, that wasn’t good enough, and MLS’s pursuit of CONCACAF glory continues on.

“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. Congratulations to Chivas, they won the game, and I have nothing to say to my guys except that I’m proud of them and they worked hard,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said.

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.

It was a sentiment echoed by goalkeeper Alex Bono.

“We wanted to come here and be the first [MLS team] to lift the CONCACAF Champions League trophy. We failed in that goal, and that’s massively disappointing. But I’m really proud of the guys for the run that we’ve made and for the effort we put in over the two legs of every series we’ve played in,” Bono said.

Incredibly, Toronto didn’t have a single central defender who was healthy for this match. Chris Mavinga and Nick Hagglund (both hamstring) were unavailable, while Drew Moor (quad strain), and Jason Hernandez (match fitness) did not make the 18-man roster. Eriq Zavaleta was on the substitute’s bench, but even he was dealing with a quad problem. Also missing for Toronto was full-back Justin Morrow (calf).

With so many absentees, Vanney had to go with a makeshift defence, moving Bradley from midfield into the centre of the back line to play alongside Gregory van der Wiel, with Auro and Canadian Ashtone Morgan out wide.

On the positive side, influential playmaker Victor Vazquez returned to TFC’s starting lineup after being sidelined for several weeks with a nerve issue in his back.

“Our guys do whatever they have to do. We had zero healthy centre backs coming into this game,” Vanney said. “I thought our guys competed. We tried to play. … [But] I go back to the first leg; we can’t give up two goals in Toronto. That was the difference in the series.”

All of Estadio Akron’s 46,232 seats were not occupied on this night, but those who did show up produced a loud and intimidating atmosphere inside Chivas’ home venue. The locals loudly jeered every touch by a TFC player, and sang songs and chanted while Chivas was in possession. Ultras in one end of the stadium collectively pounded out a deafening rhythm on their drums the entire game.

Chivas took the lead off a TFC mistake. Jozy Altidore played a pass behind Osorio near the centre of the field, and Rodolfo Pizarro was there to pick it off and launch a counterattack. Pizarro quickly broke down the left side, and played a defence-splitting pass into the box for Orbelin Pineda who slotted it past Bono.

Altidore drew TFC level minutes later. With TFC pressing, Chivas couldn’t clear their lines inside their penalty area, while Nico Hasler showed off some fancy footwork to keep the play alive while being surrounded by defenders. He eventually worked his way to the end-line and centred a pass for Altidore who hammered it home.

Toronto took the lead and tied the series 3-3 on aggregate just before halftime. Moments after earning a yellow card for complaining to the referee, Sebastian Giovinco took a pass from Marky Delgado and caught Chivas goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota cheating and leaving his near post exposed. The Italian stuck a hard shot that snuck by Cota to stun the crowd into silence.

Tensions nearly boiled over between the two sides early in the second half when Giovinco was punched in the chest by Chivas’ Michael Perez off the ball, a clear red card infraction that the referee missed. Soon after, Vanney subbed off Hasler for Canadian forward Jordan Hamilton, switching to a 4-3-3 formation with the clear intention of going for it. Jose Godinez nearly tied things up for Chivas, but even though his low drive beat Bono, it smacked the post.

Canadian Jay Chapman came on for a gassed Vazquez in the 71st minute. Vanney was forced into making another big change with five minutes left in regulation when Altidore limped off with what appeared to be a hamstring problem. He was replaced by Ager Aketxe.

Delgado had a chance to win it in injury time for TFC. Giovinco scampered down the left and played a cross into the middle of the box for an unmarked Delgado. The young midfielder had all kinds of time, but he rushed his shot, ballooning it over the crossbar.

“I’m not a big believer in luck, I’m a believer in execution. That ball fell very nicely for Marky. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to hit the target. … 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.

That set the stage for an epic shootout, with Chivas holding their nerve as the Estadio Akron heaved with every successful penalty kick from the home side. Bradley’s miss sealed the result, sending the home fans into a state of delirium.

“We’re gutted. We thought we were good enough to win it. … Today it didn’t go our way,” Bono said.

“This is the way the game goes. It’s unjust sometimes. It feels like our hearts have been ripped for our chests.”

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