Toronto vs. America 50-50 Challenge: CONCACAF Champions League semis
With Toronto FC hosting Club America the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall highlight what to expect from two of the biggest clubs MLS and Liga MX have to offer.
How is each team looking heading into this game?
Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle): For all of its heroics in the CCL, Toronto's league form had been well below its usual standard, as it dropped its first two league matches. That changed last Friday, as Toronto generated some momentum with a 3-1 home victory over Real Salt Lake. The Reds did so with a patchwork defense and attacking pieces like Victor Vazquez sitting the game out due to a variety of injuries.
The extent to which that will change remains to be seen. Only defender Nick Hagglund has been ruled out, with players like Vazquez, defender Chris Mavinga and midfielder Ager Aketxe likely to be a game-time decision. Manager Greg Vanney will be hoping that the two weeks since it disposed of Tigres in the CCL has seen his side gain some sharpness. That certainly looked to be the case for striker Jozy Altidore, who scored twice in last Friday's win.
Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcuo): Club America is in good shape. Las Aguilas have lost only once in 17 games during 2018 and the team looks like a Miguel Herrera side, with its commitment to winning the ball back quickly, the vertical play through midfield and high work-rate.
The team comes into Tuesday's first leg against Toronto after defeating Mexico City rival Cruz Azul 2-1 and confidence is high.
"[The game in Toronto] doesn't scare us at all," America defender Edson Alvarez told reporters on leaving Mexico City airport. "We know who we are and what we've achieved."
There is mixed news on the injury front. Mexico international striker Oribe Peralta is fit to play after coming off in the second half against Cruz Azul with a knock to his ribs, but French forward Jeremy Menez did not travel to Canada as he recovers from injury.
Liga MX vs. MLS: Is this a factor or just media hype?
Carlisle: I'd say one feeds into the other. No Liga MX team wants to lose to an MLS side, and MLS is eager to show that it is the equal of teams south of the Mexican border.
TFC would love nothing more than to take down another Mexican powerhouse and become the rare MLS side to reach the final of the CCL. That will lead to more intensity and more focus for both teams. For TFC, there also needs to be a recognition that while its win over Tigres was impressive, there are still a few steps left to take in order to win the CCL crown. Given the rather muted celebrations from TFC after finishing off Tigres, that seems to be the case.
Marshall: No Liga MX club or its fans wants to suffer the backlash that accompanies losing out to a MLS club in the CCL. Just ask Tigres, who had major ambitions of winning this tournament, only to be downed by TFC and become the brunt of jokes by Club America and Chivas fans about the relative "greatness" of each institution.
The new format, with Liga MX teams entering at the round-of-16 stage, has revitalized the tournament in Mexico and you can see how a real and competitive rivalry could develop with MLS in the next few years.
No Mexican club wants to lose to a MLS side, but the overriding goal of winning this tournament and making the Club World Cup remains the focus. A few more victories in important games for MLS clubs and that may shift slightly.
Which team needs a win more?
Carlisle: Vanney has made it clear that at this point in the season, winning the CCL is the priority. This is proven by the fact that he was willing to rest upwards of five starters against RSL to make sure that his side is fresh for Tuesday's first leg. While league commitments are no doubt important, there will be time to focus on that later. TFC won a domestic treble last year. Now the Reds want to take their run of success even further and claim a continental title.
Marshall: Club America's crest portrays the American continent, and its name hints at an ambition extending beyond Mexico's borders. "Hate me even more," is a motto the club's fans like to use. Las Aguilas and the Estadio Azteca are geared up to play in and host big games and win trophies, and Herrera will view anything less than lifting the CCL as a failure. And there's also the prospect of a Clasico Nacional final against Chivas. Neither of Mexico's biggest two clubs will be happy missing out if its great rival does make the final.
There is no sense Club America will see this game as an annoyance. Winning Liga MX is the goal for every Mexican club, but Club America is already pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot and is in no way looking to rest players, as Tigres perhaps regrettably did with Andre-Pierre Gignac in the first leg of the quarterfinals in Toronto.
All that said, given how this tournament is viewed in MLS, Toronto needs the win more. Imagine America easing past Toronto over the two legs? That would represent a bitter blow not only to TFC's ambitions, but also to MLS and possibly even the competition itself.
Which player will dominate over the two legs?
Carlisle: Sebastian Giovinco was the difference against Tigres, and Toronto will need him to come through again against Club America. Not only does Giovinco's prowess on set pieces give Toronto the ability to strike anytime, anywhere, but he has the ability to set up goals as well as score them, especially in transition. Without question, the likes of Altidore, Vazquez, and Marky Delgado give TFC a varied attack, but America will be more than happy to stop Giovinco and take their chances with the rest.
Marshall: From the Club America side, everyone knows about striker Peralta's ability to rise to the occasion. MLS fans will remember him scoring the vital second goal in the 2015 CCL final second leg against Montreal Impact. But another player TFC will have to keep a close eye on is 27-year-old Mateus Uribe.
The Colombian central midfielder started both of his national team's games against France and Australia over the international break, and it looks like he'll make Jose Pekerman's squad for Russia 2018. Uribe provides goals -- eight in 23 games in Liga MX -- creativity and energy as a box-to-box midfielder. And his partnership in the center of midfield, with the much more defense-minded Guido Rodriguez, is perhaps the strongest in Mexico at present.
Carlisle: Michael Bradley vs. Oribe Peralta. Granted, this isn't a classic defender vs. forward matchup, but Bradley and Peralta figure to see a lot of each other. Bradley prefers to drop deep into midfield in order to initiate Toronto's attack, and Peralta is the kind of forward willing to put in the work to disrupt the opponent's buildup and make TFC work harder to get the ball forward. This will especially be true in the second leg, which will be played at the Azteca Stadium at an altitude of around 7,200 feet. Peralta is also capable of dropping into spaces between the lines, giving Bradley another attacker to think about beyond the likes of Uribe.
Marshall: If Club America can contain Giovinco, its chances of making the final go up significantly. That's not a great secret, but it does pose the question of how Herrera will deal with the 31-year-old Italian, who tends to float between the opposition midfield and defense in search of space.
The most likely answer is 23-year-old Argentine Rodriguez being asked to pay special attention to Giovinco's movement. And it promises to be a fascinating battle. Rodriguez is a no-nonsense midfielder, liable to pick up too many yellow and red cards. He has played for Argentina within the past 12 months and won't be overawed by Giovinco, although the crafty forward will provide him with a stern test.
The prospect of fielding an extra central midfield and dropping striker Henry Martin -- Menez's replacement -- to the bench could also be enticing to Herrera. Bringing in an intelligent midfielder like Joe Corona would give Rodriguez more freedom to track Giovinco, although naturally it would also blunt America as an attacking force.
Carlisle: Toronto FC has already taken down one Liga MX heavyweight in Tigres, and has the kind of depth to compete with America. But Las Aguilas are formidable, and the altitude at the Azteca is a crucial difference compared to Tigres. The matchup appears to be impossibly tight, but look for America to prevail 3-2 on aggregate by drawing the away leg and then getting the win at home by a solitary goal.
Marshall: Toronto 2-1 Club America in the first leg at a cold BMO Field, with Las Aguilas going through 4-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 win in Estadio Azteca. An important difference for TFC against Club America compared to against Tigres is that the Azteca is at altitude, whereas Monterrey isn't. How and if Toronto can deal with that could be a decisive factor in this series, which once again doesn't have an overwhelming favorite.