It’s been less than two-and-a-half years since Toronto FC crumbled in its first foray into the MLS playoffs, stumbling to a 3-0 loss in Montreal.
How times have changed.
Forged in the cauldron of two-game series in the MLS playoffs and Canadian championships, the MLS champions are embracing the challenge of playing on hostile ground in Monterrey against Liga MX champion Tigres UANL in the second leg of their Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.
Toronto won the opener of the aggregate series 2-1 at BMO Field last Wednesday.
TFC captain Michael Bradley expects a “night of everything” Tuesday at the Estadio Universitario.
“Twists, turns, good moments, not so good moments,” he said. “But we have to be ready mentally, physically, to give everything and to understand that that’s what these nights are all about.
“There’s no telling, there’s no predicting how things will go. But the team that has more guys who embrace the night, who embrace everything that goes into it, that team typically has a better chance of coming out on the good side. That’s our mentality.”
Bradley points to Toronto’s experience and confidence.
“We’ve got guys who have played in big games, in these types of games, all over the world. And by now we have a group of guys in this team who have together played in a lot of these type of nights … The more you do that, the more you understand what they’re all about.”
Still, Mexico has traditionally been a graveyard for MLS teams. The New York Red Bulls’ 2-0 win at Club Tijuana last week was just the third victory in 49 competitive matches (3-38-8) on Mexican soil for MLS clubs.
The other two wins — FC Dallas over Pumas and Seattle over Monterrey, both by 1-0 margins — came in 2011 Champions League group play.
Embracing the struggle
Prior to the Red Bulls’ victory, MLS teams were 0-26-5 in CONCACAF Champions League/Cup knockout games (either one-off contests or in a two-leg series) against Mexican teams in Mexico.
“This is a huge test and it’ll be a good indication of where we stand,” said Toronto defender Drew Moor.
He says the TFC players will have to draw on their past big games.
“No matter where you’ve played, no matter where you’ve come from, you go into Monterrey, a place where Tigres are extremely good and have been for the past five to 10 years. Not a lot of team go in there and get much joy.
“It’s a huge moment and we’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to embrace that moment, we’re going to embrace that struggle.”
Said coach Greg Vanney: “These are the games that really force you to concentrate and play every moment and respect every situation to its highest potential.”
The CONCACAF Champions League has served to up the ante for a Toronto team that won the MLS Cup, Canadian championship and MLS Supporters’ Shield last year. The CONCCAF club championship is the one trophy case the team has yet to fill.
“It presents a new challenge,” said defender Eriq Zavaleta. “What’s so cool about the whole thing is that in winning everything last year, to then have a new competition and a new challenge so early into the next season, I think, is a fun one for us. It gets us pretty engaged pretty early and it starts the season off on the right foot.”
Facing Tigres in the quarter-final was a bonus.
“Everybody’s mouths were watering a little bit,” said Bradley. “These opportunities to test yourself individually and collectively at the highest level don’t come around every single week.”
The series winner could face another Mexican powerhouse in Club America, which defeated Panama’s Tauro FC 4-0 in the first leg of their quarter-final.
Aggressive in pursuit of away goal
Don’t expect TFC to park the bus in front of goal Tuesday. Toronto wants an away goal, to negate the one Tigres scored at BMO Field and to pile the pressure on the Mexican side.
“We’re going there to play. We’re going there to be aggressive. We’re going there to not be afraid, to not sit back,” said Bradley. “That’s not who we are. That’s not what we want to do. That’s not what gives us the best chance.
“We’re going to be smart. We’re going to be mindful of the position that we’re in. But we’re going there to give it a real go and make sure that they understand from the beginning the game’s not just going to be played on their terms.”
Added Moor: “What we want to do is not drop our energy level from where we finished the game on Wednesday night. It’s very important that we go in, try to attack them, try to play in their half of the field … We know that they’re going to come at us. They have to open themselves up a bit.”
Toronto’s record against Mexican teams in the competition is 2-4-3. The lone previous victory was a 2-1 decision over visiting Cruz Azul in August 2010.
Toronto’s best Champions League showing was in 2010-11 when it reached the semifinals, where it was beaten 7-3 on aggregate by Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
A question mark continues over Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, who was limited to a short appearance off the bench last week due to a back issue.