Toronto FC faces its toughest test yet in Azteca vs. America
MEXICO CITY -- Toronto FC may be taking a healthy 3-1 lead into Estadio Azteca for the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Club America, but the Major League Soccer side from Canada should be under no illusion as to the size of the task awaiting it in Mexico City.
Toronto's run in the CCL so far this season has been mightily impressive, and the fact that the team traveled down to Pachuca -- at a higher altitude than Mexico City -- as early as last Thursday shows both the planning and the seriousness that has defined TFC in the competition to date. But there is no denying the importance of this game to Club America, who is looking to win its eighth CONCACAF continental title.
Las Aguilas didn't have the luxury of resting this past weekend like Toronto, but Miguel Herrera's side knows what is at stake. Losing or going out of this competition inside the spiritual home of Mexican soccer to a MLS side would be an embarrassment for Club America. It would be the talk of the many sports shows each night on Mexican television, and the word "fracaso" ("failure") would be flying around.
Las Aguilas are doing everything possible to stop that from happening, both on and off the field. The club launched a promotion inviting fans to make their presence felt on Tuesday by using the hashtag "everyone to the Azteca," demanding in the video that "this is our house, respect it" and that fans "show why we are the greatest."
Herrera certainly believes.
"We didn't play well [in the first leg]," said Herrera in an interview with Fox Sports. "Toronto is a clinical team [with] two talented players upfront who did their job.
"It was difficult for us to adapt to the cold and the pitch," he added. "We had chances to close the gap. We can turn it around at home."
Fans who attended Las Aguilas' last home Liga MX match against Cruz Azul will enter the Azteca for free and will produce a tifo for when the teams come out into the stadium. The 9 p.m. kickoff (local time) is also helpful for people after work, and the historic Azteca shouldn't be too far off capacity.
In short, America is attempting to create an atmosphere to intimidate Toronto in a game that really doesn't need any additional spice.
The half-time brawl in the first leg and the he-said-she-said comments after have brought an extra edge to the proceedings and both teams were fined by CONCACAF. Herrera accused police in Toronto of hitting his players and even suggested that MLS is doing things "under the table" to bring in players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Herrera's comments have been mocked by many and highlight how the 50-year-old hasn't softened his character and aggressive streak since losing the Mexico job after taking a swing at a journalist. But they will have fired up the America players and the fan base.
Herrera's planning has been hampered by injuries, with Paraguayan winger Cecilio Dominguez ruled out with a hamstring complaint and French forward Jeremy Menez highly doubtful. Those injuries rob Herrera of two of his most creative influences, with their replacements likely to be Andres Ibarguen and Henry Martin.
Toronto's preparation has been lower-key and smoother, in tune with a team that has almost had tunnel vision when it comes to the CCL. The squad and coach Greg Vanney have remained calm and shut off in Pachuca.
"We're coming here to play, to be aggressive," TFC captain Michael Bradley told the club website Saturday. "We want to score, want to go after the game and finish things off."
It'll be a substantially different game for Toronto than the quarterfinal second leg against Tigres. America is a much more vertical team than the possession-driven Tigres, and Herrera will send his side out to attack and generate momentum and pressure from the first whistle, unlike the more conservative Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti. Toronto's defense has held up fairly well, but like Bradley hinted, the key for Toronto will be to score. And with Sebastian Giovinco on the field and linking up with Jozy Altidore, perhaps America's biggest challenge will be keeping a clean sheet.
The space in the trophy cabinet Toronto famously has reserved for the CCL cup obviously won't be filled with victory over America. And the Toronto players are unlikely to celebrate making a final too wildly. But passage to the final having gotten past Tigres and Club America -- the two most successful Mexico clubs in recent years -- will go done as one of the greatest achievements from a MLS team in the modern history of CONCACAF's club competition.
"Through continuity and experience, we have a very good team; have a good chance to win. That's why we're here," said Vanney on the club's website. "We're not here to just participate, but to win."
All the raw elements are there for a CCL classic on Tuesday.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.