Toluca's late goal leaves Tijuana with bittersweet taste after first-leg win
TIJUANA -- Let's be clear: Thursday night's 2-1 win for Tijuana over Toluca is massive.
Once a team that was flirting with a spot outside of the playoffs, Tijuana is now miraculously one step closer to a place in the Liga MX final. After the recent victory at home, Xolos could sneak through to the next round with a draw during Sunday's semifinal second leg against Toluca.
Keep in mind, Tijuana also has this semifinal advantage over a squad that finished the regular season at the very top of the league table. It's impressive, but following Thursday night's match, it was easy to get a sense of bittersweet excitement from Xolos' Estadio Caliente crowd.
After maintaining a 2-0 lead for most of the recent first leg, it looked as if Tijuana was going to cruise to a straightforward win over Los Diablos Rojos. That is until Toluca's Fernando Uribe found the back of the net during the 94th minute.
In literally last minute of the game, Uribe's goal hushed the home faithful that were raucous and jubilant throughout the semifinal clash. The final whistle blew immediately after the Toluca goal, sullying a night that was nearly perfect for Tijuana.
Despite the win, a number of boos rained down from fans who were clearly hurt by the lone goal that provided a lifeline to the opposition. As for the Xolos players themselves, few seemed happy either.
"We were heated because of the last minute goal," said Tijuana midfielder Alejandro Guido about the mood in the locker room after the match. The 24-year-old American, who appeared melancholy in the mixed zone, wasn't alone in his disappointment.
"We're hurt by the goal," stated Xolos striker Juan Martin Lucero. "But we must go over there [in the second leg] and play the same way."
Due to the away-goal tiebreaker, that one opportunity from Toluca has made Tijuana's path to the next round more complicated. Coupled with the higher-seeding tiebreaker, Toluca can now sneak past Xolos with either a narrow 1-0 or 2-1 win in the second leg.
"We made clear mistakes, but that goal puts us right back in the fight," said Toluca manager Hernan Cristante in the postmatch news conference, fully aware of the late gift that his side had been given.
Cristante's men have been woeful in recent weeks, and although they haven't claimed a win in their last four matches, they'll likely feel hopeful heading into the second leg.
In all competitions, Toluca has yet to gain a loss at home since October of 2017. In fact, seven of the last eight games held at the Estadio Nemesio Diez have finished with a victory.
All that said, Xolos are still the ones with the 2-1 scoreline advantage.
"I am very happy with the team," said Tijuana manager Diego Cocca after the win. "They [Toluca] got one on a set piece. That's soccer at times, unfortunately, but that is part of this. We are heading into Toluca with the lead and it all depends on us."
Can Toluca turn things around?
On paper, Cristante has the capabilities of doing so but must also fix his backline that has allowed two goals in each playoff match so far this season. It wouldn't be a shock to see the No. 1 seed significantly improve in the second leg, but in order to stay alive in the title chase, they'll have to gain their first win of the Liguilla.
As for Xolos, in spite of the last second goal which has defined the home leg, the squad and its supporters should still be thrilled with the result. At the time of writing, they currently have a 2-1 lead over the best team in the league. Bittersweet or not, Toluca supporters are probably jealous of the position its opponents are in.
Either way, this series is still completely up in the air.
As opposed to the other semifinal battle, which Santos Laguna have nearly wrapped up against Club America, both Toluca and Tijuana still have plenty to fight for this Sunday.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.