In the clash of champions between the MLS Cup holders, Toronto FC, and last year’s Liga MX winners, Tigres UANL, it was TFC who emerged winners 2-1 in a week where MLS, surprisingly enough, went 3-0 against Mexican sides following the New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders’ victories against Xolos and Chivas respectively.
Last night’s victory speaks volumes of what the TFC management has managed to build. Greg Vanney’s clan showed resilience, tenacity, and most of all, they highlighted a winning mentality which gave them a huge helping hand in having the edge over their opponents, despite trailing in the early stages of the second half following Eduardo Vargas’ thumping volley.
In the pre-match press conference, coach Greg Vanney underlined the fact that such a game, with both teams boasting quality players in their teams making it a fairly balanced contest, will be decided by small details. And indeed, the match was won thanks to a couple of glimpses of quality earning Toronto their first goals of the season at home — after shooting blanks in the last 16 tie against the Colorado Rapids and in the MLS season opener versus the Columbus Crew.
While Ricardo Ferretti’s side scored on their first clear-cut scoring opportunity, TFC worked their socks off to break down Tigres. When you have Designated Players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, though, some drives come off easily and that’s what should give TFC fans hope ahead of the second leg. The money that the Canadian side poured into luring this trio to Canada paid due dividends yesterday.
This was the second defeat for Tigres against an MLS side in this competition in 10 encounters, who are now 7-2-1 (4-2-1 away from home).
A characteristic which may have been overshadowed by theories about how TFC would mark Andre-Pierre Gignac and how Giovinco would fare against Tigres’ backline was the condition of the pitch surface. With both teams playing the ball on the ground, it was definitely going to influence the game, and in fact, it did so in my opinion.
Rather than an alibi for either side, it is just an impression which I had especially when the likes of Giovinco and Jonathan Osorio attempted their luck from long-range but could not trigger the shot well, with their back foot grounding itself on the rough turf.
Shifting the attention to the team’s strategies for the game, logic dictated that TFC would stand back and wait for the opportunity to catch their opponents on the break, considering that Tigres are a possession-based side.
With that said, it was important for the home side not to allow their defenders to face Tigres’ forwards in one-on-one situations, which would be equivalent to a death sentence for TFC. Hence, it was important that any player roped in by Vanney had to track down his opponent and roll up the sleeves in order to meet Tigres eye to eye, with due respect but without any fear.
On the other end of the field, TFC has enough quality to harm Tigres. It was imperative for the home side to reduce technical errors as much as possible for a quick transition as Tuca Ferretti’s backline is not very mobile, especially on the flanks. Giovinco had to be the fulcrum of any offensive play as he had to be the channel between the midfield and the attack, even though one would might have thought that Tigres could prepare some type of cage for him, in order to prevent him from working his magic in the final quarter of the field.
Cagey affair, TFC more dangerous
Vanney opted for a clever move as he deployed his starting XI in a 3-5-2 shape with Eriq Zavaleta given the nod over Nick Hagglund at the back, alongside Drew Moor and Chris Mavinga. Given his preference for the El Salvadorian defender in a three-man backline and his good relationship with Gregory van der Wiel shown against the Crew, Vanney decided to maintain the same right-hand side personnel.
The biggest change, however, was Victor Vazquez’s absence. He limped off the field last Saturday and was forced to watch most of the match from the bench, as Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio flanked Michael Bradley as inside midfielders while van der Wiel and Justin Morrow were the outside backs. Jozy Altidore and Giovinco were entrusted with the offensive keys as usual.
While Tigres left Gignac on the bench, they were still fearsome up front with the likes of Eduardo Vargas and Enner Valencia alongside Javier Aquino.
In a cagey first 45 minutes, Tigres opened the match enjoying the lion’s share of possession, but they never really threatened the home side as the likes of Mavinga and Moor made sure to isolate Valencia while Vargas had to retreat back down the field in order to obtain the ball and dictate the play.
Moreover, Tigres were banking a lot on the left-hand side where Aquino constantly was attempting to dribble past van der Wiel. In order to prevent any one-on-one situations, Vanney ordered Delgado, the closest midfielder to the Dutch fullback, to double-up the marking.
When TFC regained possession, the first one to calm the waters and move the ball forward was Mavinga, who may not have the most sensible feet in the roster, but he is able to track down his colleagues with his neat passing — even though he lost it cheaply on a couple of occasions.
Speaking about Bradley’s valuable presence in the midfield marshaling the backline may not be significant. It would be fairer to highlight Osorio’s exceptional talent showcase, where once again he demonstrated why he is a clever and strong technical player.
As time went by, TFC started to find the rhythm and were trying to implement their usual free-flowing football, with Giovinco, who had acres of spaces to roam in, filling the half-spaces and the outside backs overlapping in order to distribute the ball into the box or cut inside to finish themselves.
One could notice that Tigres were taking TFC seriously, as they were defending with two lines of pressure horizontally, waiting for TFC to err so they could exploit the space behind them. However, TFC were so inspired that they could have even scored one themselves in the first half, had Giovinco not been denied by Nahuel Guzman.
You thought I forgot to mention Altidore’s SUBLIME work-rate? Nah. But first, let’s introduce Gignac, who Ferretti — amid the criticism of the Mexican pundits for not starting him — put into the fray for the second half.
His presence was immediately felt as if it was an injection of courage and self-determination, with Tigres attacking in numbers. And like a prey in search of its predator, the Liga MX side executes whenever it sniffs goals. On the first real mistake in the midfield by TFC, where they failed to mark anyone, the ball dropped to Vargas’ feet who caught Mavinga napping and with an angled drive, deceived Bono to make it 1-0.
Excellent finish from Vargas. Toronto FC in a tricky situation now. pic.twitter.com/ZJqD6dSsO8— Mitchell Tierney (@mitchelltierney) March 8, 2018
Amid the disappointment for the away goal conceded, Vargas’ strike enabled us to see what TFC were made of. Were they going to succumb to a home defeat or rise to the occasion as champions? You guessed right, the latter.
Altidore transformed himself into beast mode and, after finding a way past two opponents, he immediately served Osorio the equalizer ball. But the latter, despite being inches away in front of goal, sailed the ball over the bar — he had to vindicate himself. (SPOILER: He did).
One thing we could notice about Tigres’ four-man backline was that they struggled when it came to preventing their opponents from dribbling them or else marking them, especially in the case of Altidore. All this was highlighted in the first goal, when Giovinco cut inside, sending the ball towards an unmarked Delgado who notched it into the path of the U.S. forward. Despite Tigres’ Jorge Torres Nilo’s hold on Altidore’s shirt, he managed to push him aside and send the ball into the back of the net.
The ☝️-touch pass from @MarkyDelgado— Toronto FC (@torontofc) March 8, 2018
The ☝️-touch finish from @JozyAltidore#TFCLive | #TORvTIG | #SCCL2018 pic.twitter.com/QSEDOV95Nk
The closing stages of the game were pulsating, with the home side riding the wave of momentum and seeking the winner ahead of the second leg.
Vanney put on Auro and Vazquez, with TFC closing the game on the attack. Like a well-oiled machine, the midfield was connecting passes with Giovinco and Altidore which enabled Osorio and then Vazquez to find space between the lines.
And when it seemed that the stalemate was going to reign at BMO Field, Osorio had other plans. Moor reached out to Giovinco on the far left and the Atomic Ant sent an inviting ground ball, with which the Ontario-born midfielder connected, with a BACKHEEL, in front of Guzman amid the eruption of the crowd.
What an unbelievable finish by Jonathan Osorio to put Toronto FC up 2-1 pic.twitter.com/KDoH46OAoX— Mitchell Tierney (@mitchelltierney) March 8, 2018
However, worth a mention that the victory would not have been possible if Mavinga did not take the risk of a last-ditch tackle, which put halt to danger inside the 18-yard box to preserve the one-goal lead.
A one-goal advantage may not be enough for TFC to pull it through, but it was imperative for them to enter the second leg with a winning advantage in order to provide themselves a huge boost before they face another litmus test, this time in the outskirts of Monterrey.
Let this be the start of Those Champions League nights in Toronto.