Shortly after Toronto FC’s victory in last December’s MLS Cup final, club president Bill Manning was swigging from a bottle of champagne while leaning against the wall in a quiet corner of the Reds’ locker-room.
The buzz from his team hoisting the trophy before a sellout crowd at BMO Field hadn’t yet subsided, but already Manning was planning ahead.
“The next step is CONCACAF Champions League. That’s the next step, and we’ve already been talking about it,” Manning told Sportsnet.
Unapologetic ambition has been one of the many things Manning has infused into TFC since arriving on the scene in 2015. One of his first orders of business, despite TFC’s track record of futility at the time, was to commission the construction of a trophy case that overlooked the main foyer of the team’s training facility, with spots reserved for the MLS Cup, Canadian Championship, and CONCACAF Champions League trophies.
On a rainy Tuesday night at Mexico City’s iconic Estadio Azteca, where some of the sports’ biggest stars have played at one time or another, TFC took a massive step towards completely filling that trophy cabinet. The Reds earned a historic 1-1 draw against Club America to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League final for the first time in franchise history.
Canadian Jonathan Osorio was the hero of the night, scoring in the first half, while TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a number of stellar saves throughout the contest. Toronto posted a 3-1 victory in the first leg at home last week, and won this semifinal series 4-2 on aggregate.
Toronto becomes only the third MLS club to reach the Champions League final, joining Real Salt Lake (in 2011) and Montreal Impact (2015). Teams from Mexico have won every Champions League since the inaugural tournament in 2008-09, and seven of the nine finals have been all-Mexican affairs.
Congratulations @torontofc ..
you beat the best team on the continent in Tigres and put on an absolute clinic vs a Mexican giant (America). No doubt in my mind you are the best team in MLS history. @MLS #TFCLive
— herculez gomez (@herculezg) April 11, 2018
Not content with dispatching the best on offer in MLS, Toronto FC has now taken to beating the top teams from Mexico’s Liga MX. A two-time winner of the Champions League, Club America is the second marquee Mexican side to fall at the feet of the Reds in this year’s tournament. TFC beat Monterrey-based Tigres, Champions League runners-up in the past two seasons, in the quarter-finals.
TFC will meet another Mexican challenger, Club Deportivo Guadalajara, in the two-legged final. Toronto will host the opener next Tuesday, with the return match scheduled for April 25 in Mexico. Guadalajara beat MLS outfit New York Red Bulls in the other semifinal 1-0 on aggregate.
The magnitude of what Toronto has accomplished can’t be overstated. MLS teams have historically struggled against Liga MX sides in this competition, especially on Mexican soil, while TFC was winless in its previous five games in Mexico in this competition.
Only five years ago, TFC was mired in hopelessness, failing to qualify for the MLS playoffs for an eighth consecutive season after the “Bloody Big Deal” turned out to be a “Bloody Big Bust.” Now they are 180 minutes away from becoming the first MLS club to win the Champions League.
Tuesday’s result had as much to do with TFC’s character as it did with its roster depth. With four key players still out due to injuries – Justin Morrow, Chris Mavinga, Victor Vazquez and Nick Hagglund – TFC coach Greg Vanney was forced into using the same starting lineup for last week’s first leg.
The injury woes continued for TFC in the seventh minute when forward Jozy Altidore hobbled off the field with a foot injury. He was subbed out and replaced by Canadian Tosaint Ricketts.
Five minutes after stepping onto the pitch, the Edmonton native latched onto a sublime, one-touch pass from Sebastian Giovinco and took full advantage of slack defending from the Mexicans before playing a simple ball across the box. Osorio skipped away from his marker and slotted it home past helpless goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin.
Now down 4-1 in aggregate and needing three goals just to force a shootout, Club America furiously ventured forward in attack while Toronto relied on last ditch defending and some good fortune in riding out the Mexicans’ pressure.
Club America looked to level the score in the 20th minute via an Eriq Zavaleta own goal, but it was waived off for offside. Minutes later, TFC’s Alex Bono made a fantastic reflex save on a Paul Aguilar header from in close to rob the Mexican forward of a sure goal.
Vanney made another change at the start of the second half, swapping out Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel for Liechtenstein international Nicolas Hasler, and switching from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-2 setup.
Bono came up big again in the 63rd minute, tipping Alejandro Diaz’s majestic header over the crossbar and out of danger. That sucked the fight out of the home side, who looked lethargic the rest of the way as they were confidently contained by TFC.
Toronto captain Michael Bradley was called for a foul inside the box, and Club America’s Andrés Uribe converted from the penalty spot deep into injury time to break up Bono’s shutout. But it was far too little too late for the Mexicans, who were second best for most of the night against the MLS Cup champs.
With this semifinal series out of the way, TFC will now fly directly to Denver ahead of Saturday’s MLS road game against the Colorado Rapids.