Toronto FC must step up Champions League play vs. Tigres


Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (centre). (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – It’s not often Greg Vanney gets his back up when asked a question by a reporter.

When a query is posed to him that he doesn’t like, Toronto FC‘s coach answers politely, while respectfully and subtly driving home the point that he didn’t agree with the premise of the question. No harm, no foul.

Tuesday night was another matter, though. TFC earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Colorado Rapids at BMO Field, a result that was good enough to see the Reds advance to the quarterfinals of the CONACACF Champions League after winning the first leg 2-0 in Denver a week ago.

It was hardly a vintage performance by Vanney’s team. Although TFC created more chances, the Rapids carried the bulk of the play on the night. Next up for Toronto is a quarterfinal showdown with Tigres, one of the top clubs in Mexico.

The MLS Cup champs’ rather flat effort on Tuesday night did not go unnoticed by one reporter in the post-match press conference, who noted that they can’t afford to be as wasteful in front of net against Tigres, otherwise they will be punished by the Mexican powerhouse. “You had three shots on goal the whole game, and what concerned me was nine shots off target. Against Tigres, that’s not going to work,” the reporter offered.

There was nothing subtle or polite about Vanney’s response, as he dismissed it with a wonderfully dry and sarcastic “I’m sorry you’re concerned” retort.

Notwithstanding the way the question was asked – and to be clear, it wasn’t a question, but rather an opinion, one lacking in nuance and oblivious to context – or the fact that Toronto dominated Colorado over 180 minutes, the underlining point was still valid: Toronto FC has to be much better against Tigres than it was on Tuesday night.

With a new coach and plenty of roster turnover in the off-season, the Rapids are a team in transition. Truth be told, they’re not much of a test for TFC; they’re exactly the kind of side Toronto should beat, although to its credit, Colorado did give the hosts a tough time of it on Tuesday. You can only play the team in front of you, and the Reds easily dispatched the Rapids over the two legs, so fair play to them.

But beating Colorado in an aggregate series is one thing. Taking on Tigres in a two-game set, with the decisive second leg in Mexico, where MLS teams rarely win in the Champions League, isn’t just a different kettle fish – it’s going skinning dipping in a swimming pool full of sharks.

Toronto’s next CONCACAF opponent is one of the best teams in Mexico’s Liga MX, a league that is of greater profile and quality than MLS. Tigres’ roster payroll is larger than TFC’s, which is the highest in MLS, and they boast international players the calibre of French forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, Chilean star Eduardo Vargas and Ecuadoran Enner Valencia, not to mention a host of Mexican internationals.

Not only that, but history is working against Toronto. Of the nine Champions League finals that have been held since 2009, seven have pitted one Mexican club against another. Only twice have MLS teams reached the final: Real Salt Lake in 2011 and the Montreal Impact in 2015.

What’s more, Tigres is in the middle of its domestic campaign, while Toronto is still in pre-season mode. Vanney deployed his “A team” on Tuesday, in part, because he felt he couldn’t afford not to.

“If you have any desire to win this tournament, and you’re an MLS team, you need every minute you can to get your guys on the field and try to get in sync with each other, and try to get some experiences together that you can build on. … Tigres is already sharp and already have a lot of things worked out. We can’t rest guys right now,” Vanney explained.

We’re now down to the business end of the CONCACAF Champions League, and if Toronto is serious in its ambitions to win this tournament, it’s going to have to step it up in a significant way against Tigres.

“At the end of the day, I thought we were OK,” Vanney said after Tuesday’s game. “I thought we were a little too spread apart in the first half and the midfield was too wide open, which was allowing them to pick up some balls but in the grand scheme of things we did what we needed to do.”

TFC put in a professional performance against the Rapids in the second leg. But that simply won’t be enough to see them through to the semifinals, a fact not lost on Vanney.

“We understand as we move forward in [the Champions League] that you have to play better because you come across better opponents. That’s understood,” Vanney stated.

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