Never write off Matias Almeyda's Chivas, the all-Mexican underdogs
The significance of Chivas' performance in their 2-1 win over Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League first leg at BMO Field is directly related to the MLS side recording victories against both Tigres and Club America on the way to the final.
The style with which Toronto edged past Tigres in the quarterfinal and brushed aside Club America with relative ease had been noted in Mexico, and there wasn't much confidence in Chivas doing what the other Liga MX teams couldn't at BMO Field.
Toronto entered Tuesday's game as favorite, with some pundits going as far as to say that the game would be easy. The fact that Mexican clubs have won the last 12 editions of CONCACAF's club competition was disregarded.
But although those who boldly predicted a Toronto victory faced a backlash after the 90 minutes were up, Chivas -- made up only of Mexican players per club policy -- hadn't given much reason for hope of late.
Chivas had won only seven of 22 games in 2018 and scraped through the semifinal against New York Red Bulls with more pluck than skill. Chivas hadn't found any real form since the 2017 Clausura title win and were without defensive leader Jair Pereira and goalkeeper Rodolfo Copa, who were suspended for Tuesday's game. Four of Chivas' five regular starters in the defensive unit were ruled out.
On top of that, the pitch in Toronto was once again in poor shape, and freezing temperatures and snow are not something Guadalajara players are used to.
Everything was set up for a confident Toronto side to exert its authority and for Chivas -- currently 15th in Liga MX -- to roll out the excuses, like Club America coach Miguel Herrera did after the semifinal first leg.
But if we've learned anything about Matias Almeyda's Chivas side, it's that they shouldn't be written off, even when it seems logical to do so.
Chivas stepped up in a major way on Tuesday. That isn't saying it was a perfect or dominant performance, but the Mexicans tried to take the game to Toronto, scrapped for every second ball as if their lives depended on it and worked together.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney complained afterwards about missed chances, as he has the right to, but Chivas could've inflicted more grief through late counter-attacks. Either way, it was the team from Guadalajara that ended the game on top.
Carlos Salcido led the defense in the absence of Pereira and did so in a way that belied his 38 years. The former Fulham defender is likely to hang up his boots in a couple of weeks and his performance against Toronto was another reminder of why Almeyda believes a statue of him should be erected outside Estadio Chivas when he retires.
The rest of the side took the captain's lead. Alan Pulido's toil up front was rewarded with a goal that he admitted was slightly fortunate; Rodolfo Pizarro outshone Sebastian Giovinco with his movement and early goal and advanced his claim for a spot in Mexico's World Cup squad.
"Union, humility and perseverance," was Almeyda's assessment of Chivas' success since he took over in September 2015. He also picked out Michael Perez -- charged with man-marking Giovinco -- for special praise.
Despite the club's current problems, Almeyda clearly has a special bond with the players, and there was undoubtedly a sense of pride in all-Mexican Chivas stepping up where other Liga MX teams had failed. Almeyda once said in a news conference that Mexico could win the World Cup and asked if any of the journalists present felt the same way. No one raised their hand.
But his players buy into the belief that young Mexicans can overcome more expensive, experienced and flashy squads. The fact six of the starting XI for Chivas came through the club's youth academy is something to highlight and no-one at Chivas will be earning near the astronomical wages Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore command.
It's still only half-time in the CCL final, which Almeyda stressed after the game, but should Chivas lift the trophy in Guadalajara next Wednesday, the significance of an all-Mexican side representing CONCACAF at the Club World Cup will be celebrated by all in Mexico. There will also be renewed calls for Almeyda to be given the national team job after the 2018 World Cup.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.