MEXICO CITY — Three takes as Toronto FC and Club America drew 1-1 in Estadio Azteca to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final 4-2 on aggregate.
1. Toronto deserves the final
Whatever happens in the CONCACAF Champions League final between Toronto FC and Chivas, nobody will be able to look back and say that the Canadian champions didn’t deserve to make it this far. This has been an authoritative advertisement for both Toronto and Major League Soccer.
After slaying reigning Liga MX champion Tigres in the quarterfinal, Toronto got past Club America with relative ease over the 180 minutes, deservedly winning the first leg 3-1 at BMO Field and then drawing the second.
If there is one defining feature from the Toronto side during its CCL run, it is the way the team refuses to be rattled. There is a calm authority and steel about it — not much seems to bother Greg Vanney’s squad.
The acid test of that theory came in the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday. With rain pelting down, fans backing America and Miguel Herrera’s side attacking from the start, this was Toronto’s biggest challenge in this season’s CCL.
When key striker Jozy Altidore was taken off in the seventh minute, perhaps other teams would start to wilt, perhaps doubts would creep in.
But Toronto scored five minutes later. Sebastian Giovinco flicked the ball through to Altidore’s replacement, Tosaint Ricketts, who steered it to Jonathan Osorio — who is gaining quite the reputation this tournament — for a tap-in.
The early Club America storm had been weathered and Toronto had struck. Clinical.
Las Aguilas pushed but lacked a conductor for its orchestra, a player to speed up and slow down play when required. Playing two strikers like Oribe Peralta and Henry Martin made it easier for Toronto’s back three. Club America lacked a player who could move between the lines to unsettle Toronto.
In essence, America lacked a Giovinco, although Coach Herrera can’t be blamed for injuries to his two most creative players, Cecilio Dominguez and Jeremy Menez.
America’s attacking was haphazard and sporadic, but Paul Aguilar forced a fine save from Alex Bono on a diving header in the 28th minute. Peralta went close one minute later and after the break piled on the pressure.
Las Aguilas should’ve had a penalty early in the second half, but there was never a sense that the game was theirs for the taking — and it didn’t have to do with extreme luck or an amazing performance from the goalkeeper. Club America’s late penalty goal through Mateus Uribe turned out to be a mere consolation.
Make no mistake about it, this Toronto side showed Liga MX’s best that it is the real deal.
2. Vanney outshines Herrera
The Toronto FC coach is inevitably in the conversation for the U.S. men’s national team job and this performance in the Estadio Azteca — the spiritual home of Mexican football and El Tri — won’t do any harm at all.
Nor will the fact that passage to the final came at the expense of two former Mexico managers — Ricardo Ferretti and Herrera — who are considered among the best in Liga MX.
Herrera’s outbursts after the first leg in Toronto and in the days leading up to game painted him in a bad light. His chances of returning to the Mexico national job any time soon couldn’t have been helped.
Vanney had the aces up his sleeve on the field, as well. Granted, having a player like Giovinco makes planning easier, but Toronto withstood America’s first line in the press and picked holes in midfield and up front. At least, that’s what happened in first leg and in the early stages in the Azteca. The second half Tuesday was more a case of holding on.
The preparation of Toronto FC also turned heads, with the squad arriving in Mexico five days ahead of the game to acclimate to the altitude. They even took some time in the preseason to play in Mexico, though it wasn’t much of a factor, as Toronto was 4-1 up on aggregate for most of the second leg.
Herrera’s performance and behavior shouldn’t be surprising. He has done it before and he’ll do it again. But it was jarring in comparison to Vanney, who looked very competent at this level in a difficult atmosphere.
3. Toronto can’t take Chivas for granted
When the quarterfinals were set, Chivas were the least likely Mexican team to make the final and Toronto faced the daunting task of getting past both Tigres and America. Now they’ll face off in the final.
Chivas might have struggled to get over the line against New York Red Bulls, but when the Guadalajara team and its fans smell a trophy, the momentum and support rapidly crescendos. And the fact Chivas haven’t won a CONCACAF trophy since 1962 increases the importance.
On the other side, Toronto famously has space in its trophy cabinet ready for when the club lifts the CCL title.
The Vanney against Matias Almeyda clash on the bench promises to be fascinating, and a Liga MX vs. MLS final is exactly what this tournament needed.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.