By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 26, 2018) US Soccer Players - Wednesday night marked the finale of the 2018 Concacaf Champions League. Chivas de Guadalajara edged Toronto FC for the title in a gut-wrenching second-leg decided by penalty kicks.
Trailing 2-1 from the first-leg, the reigning MLS champs played the second-leg without a specialist center back due to injuries. Michael Bradley and Gregory van der Wiel deputized in the center of defense. Playing in front of a large Chivas crowd in the near-mile-high air of Estadio Akron, Toronto conceded the game’s opening goal.
Yet with so much breaking against them, the Reds found a way to respond, as they have so often over their past year of greatness. The team that won every trophy in front of them in 2017 battled back to win the game and level the series aggregate via goals from Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.
Under Concacaf’s quirky format, that sent the affair straight to the lottery of PKs with no extra time. When Jonathan Osorio’s spot-kick hit the woodwork and Bradley’s flew high of the target, Chivas – 2017 Liga MX winners but one of the worst teams in the league this season – won their first CCL championship.
Heartbreak for TFC. A painful ending to a gutsy CCL run for Bradley, Altidore, Alex Bono, Marky Delgado, and the rest of Toronto’s USMNT contingent. It was also more disappointment for MLS in the regional competition that continually eludes the league’s grasp.
“In the biggest moments, we threw caution to the wind and played with balls, bravery, and pride in ourselves, in each other, in our club and our city,” Bradley told reporters postgame. “Unfortunately at the end, one team has to lose. When you compete at the highest level, that's how it goes.”
Just the third MLS team in th Champions League's 10-year history to even reach the final, the Reds came as close to winning the tournament as any MLS team ever has. They beat Mexican giants Tigres and Club America to reach that point, earning newfound respect from the rest of the region along the way. But the MLS CCL drought and the Liga MX dominance that fuels it drags on.
Mexican clubs have now won all 10 editions of the Concacaf Champions League. It's a streak that clearly rankles MLS executives and has become a dull ache for fans eager to see someone break that hegemony. TFC didn’t accomplish their mission. That much is not open to debate. Nothing but the hardware will do for a group as accomplished and ambitious as theirs. Yet the example and the challenge they’ve laid down for the rest of MLS could prove highly influential.
“We've played some of the biggest games in the history of this club, of this league, in the last few years,” Bradley said. “When the lights have come on brightest, we've been a team in every sense of the word. We've been competitors, we've been winners. Tonight, a few things didn't go our way, but that doesn't change what we're all about, what went into it.”
I’ve watched and covered the Champions League for the past decade. I feel confident in saying that Toronto is the first MLS team to stand toe to toe with Liga MX in every sense: ambition, aesthetics, philosophy, mentality, star power, and of course, results. That’s cold comfort right now, but useful for the rest of us to consider.
“I don’t know if I will be able to,” said Bono when asked if he can look back with pride on the team’s overall CCL run. “We wanted to come here and be the first [MLS] team to lift the Concacaf Champions League trophy and we failed in that goal, and that's obviously massively disappointing.
“But I'm really proud of the guys for the run we made and for the effort we put in over two legs in every series that we played in. This is the way the game goes. It's unjust sometimes. It feels like your heart's been ripped from your chest sometimes. We have to deal with it.”
MLSE, the Reds’ parent company, has invested both heavily and intelligently by MLS standards to make that possible. It puts the approaches taken by other franchises in the shade and lays out a blueprint. It’s not the only way to make a run in the Champions League, though. The New York Red Bulls very nearly beat Chivas in the semifinal stage with a dramatically different philosophy, showing that it’s not solely about dollars and cents.
From a strictly human, emotional perspective, Tuesday offered nearly as much agony as this sport can possibly serve up. That's also part of the process. There are few shortcuts to elite status. TFC traveled a tortuous, winding road to reach Wednesday night’s stage. Most people in their spot would be overwhelmed by the thought of having to do it all over again over the next 10 months or so, yet that’s exactly what they’re resolving to do at this very moment.
Think of the world powers who’ve never won a World Cup. Even Mexico, with their proven player development system and passionate soccer culture, have failed for decades to advance past the World Cup’s round of 16. Simply going one step further has now become a national obsession, the “quinto partido.”
Mountain climbing is hard, on so many levels. Toronto FC is a team of accomplished mountaineers, though. They’ll ascend again, and hopefully others in the US and Canada will follow.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Jimmy Maurer on the uncertainty of life in the lower divisions
- Will New England's approach change youth soccer?
- Zlatan, Concacaf Champions League, and cult of personality in American soccer
- The good and the bad of USMNT 1 - Paraguay 0
Photo by Concacaf