It’s on days like this that I like to revisit the very beginnings of Waking the Red. It was 2011, and Toronto FC were at one of the many nadirs in the club’s short history. Our first-ever editor, Duncan Fletcher, explained the thinking behind our blog’s much-questioned name:
“Waking the Red? Eh? Like waking the dead? Exactly. Also, it’s a rare and perhaps foolish moment of optimism, but I’m going with the idea that after 4 years of poor results and laughing stock quality management, TFC’s latest management team will be the start of a new era of competence and competitiveness. The logo represents the red and orange sun just about to rise over BMO Field, enabling Reds supporters to wake up from the 4 year long nightmare they’ve endured so far. Something like that anyway.”
Well Duncan, you were a couple regimes early predicting a new era of competence and competitiveness. More pain was yet to come. Today, though, the Red is fully awake. Toronto FC stand in territory no previous iteration of the club has ever dreamt of: the Concacaf Champions League final, with not one, but two powerhouse Mexican sides in their wake.
The Reds drew 1-1 with Club América on Tuesday, we all know that. It wasn't the victory in Mexico they wanted, but it might as well have been (that last-minute penalty was nothing short of compensatory). It was, however, in almost every other sense, a victory. A victory for club, for league, for country.
TFC were the salmon swimming up stream on Tuesday — have been throughout this tournament — with wave after wave of narrative working against them. “The altitude,” we said. “The Azteca,” we said. “Injuries,” we said.
Yet, as they have done consistently for about a year and a half now, Toronto FC faced adversity and laughed in its face. Jozy Altidore, the fourth starter to pick up an injury, goes out in the sixth minute? No problem, says Jonathan Osorio. Then Gregory van der Wiel has to leave at half, bringing on Nico Hasler? Screw it, says Vanney. Let’s put four at the back again.
The Reds could’ve caved at any minute, and we probably wouldn’t have blamed them. TFC weathered 29 shots from Club América, making 34 clearances in the process. They saw less of the ball (34.9%) than they have in any game this year.
This was a kind of Toronto FC we don't see too often. In the previous game, once they'd felt out the opposition a bit, we saw the hungry, aggressive TFC we'd probably call the norm. On Tuesday, though, we saw a team willing the ball to stay out of their net.
Look at how many defensive events there were:
Also, take note of how many different players' numbers are in there. Auro was all over the pitch, and I think Jonathan Osorio has multiple clearances in the box. Sebastian Giovinco even made five recoveries. It was a pretty incredible all-hands-on-deck kind of night.
On paper, TFC's passing looks like it was atrocious. At times it actually was; Alex Bono's distribution was poor, Eriq Zavaleta sent six long balls awry, and Marky Delgado's cross-pitch passes usually ended up on the wrong player's foot. That said, their 62% passing success rate was more a product of necessity than anything.
So, these were not the tiki-taka, technical and pacey Reds we've seen in the past, perhaps even last week at home to Club América. No, this was a Toronto FC team that showed they can go toe to toe with any challenge and outlast it. I think the last time we saw them bunker down this dramatically was probably the Eastern Conference semifinal last fall against the New York Red Bulls, where allowing another away goal in the dying minutes would've meant death for TFC.
Earlier in the CCL against the Colorado Rapids, the Reds won Leg 1 by dominating possession and throwing crosses into the box. Against Tigres, some serious star power and moments of individual brilliance won out for TFC — where would they be without Seba's free kick, or Oso's backheel, or even one of Chris Mavinga's game-saving tackles. Timely goals helped a lot there.
This time around, though (although the individual flashes were there), it was a performance by committee. Everyone played a part defensively, with all the might of the Azteca bearing down on them for 90 minutes.
Now, TFC look around and see just one other team left in the CCL — one with an arguably easier route to the final at that. Chivas Guadalajara, perhaps the most popular club in Mexico (and in much of the United States, if their game at Red Bull Arena is anything to go by).
Bill Manning is already imploring TFC fans to get out to BMO Field next Tuesday, April 17, because the last thing the Reds want is to lose the home field advantage that's helped them so much in this competition. This moment is probably one Don Garber has been waiting years for. An MLS team has fought tooth-and-nail through Concacaf, taking out Mexico’s most talented team followed by its most historic. Now they’re left with its most popular.
I’m not sure I’m ready to say that MLS is closing the gap on Liga MX. Rather, I think Toronto FC are. It hasn’t shown up too often in league play yet this year, but TFC have a certain amount of skill, experience, and mental toughness that other sides in this league don’t have. Frankly, I find it hard to believe the Red Bulls or Sounders would’ve gotten through either Tigres or Club América.
TFC have already been touted as the favourite to win this final tie — something that has probably never been said about an MLS team up against a Mexican side. Chivas sit 15th in Liga MX right now, and they came 13th in the Apertura season last fall. They didn't look good against NYRB either, taking TFC's defensive mindset at the Azteca to a whole new level. They were almost wholly disinterested in playing soccer, content to finish the game 0-0.
Fortunately, the Reds are no stranger to playing a final against a team that won't attack. In fact, TFC spent all of 2017 preparing to return to MLS Cup, learning how to break down the Seattle Sounders side that seemed unwilling to take a single shot.
If TFC are to beat Chivas, it may hardly resemble their Club América tie. The Reds will need to get a little creative to score; it may well be them taking upwards of 25 shots. They just need to be wary of being caught on the counter.
Greg Vanney may have to reach a little deeper into his bag of tricks to come up with a lineup for this one (the Saturday game in Colorado even more so). Maybe the craziest part of all this is how crushed the Reds have been under the weight of big-name injuries. As it stands, Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Nick Hagglund, Justin Morrow, Jozy Altidore and Gregory van der Wiel's statuses are all unclear.
Five of those six players played in the MLS Cup final. The fifth would've too, if he'd been on the team. That TFC managed to survive Tuesday night without all those players is spectacular, and it just adds to the sentiment that this team can beat you in any fashion, on any day.
It would be a huge blow to be missing all of them against Chivas though, perhaps especially the attacking players who could help wear down a parked bus. Vazquez is a player TFC brought in almost explicitly for the purpose of breaking down a team sitting back — this would be his bread and butter.
Anyway, we can analyze to death how TFC might play against Guadalajara over the next couple days. All that matters is that this is the best chance an MLS side has ever had of winning the CCL — and Toronto aren't even representing MLS! Perhaps it's fitting that, since they're here on behalf of the CSA, they've had such timely Canadian goalscoring from Osorio and Ashtone Morgan. The Reds played most of Tuesday with three Canadians on the pitch, with four total taking part.
This Toronto FC side is what we waited so long for. All those years when they were garbage, we thought one day they might pull it together. That they have, and then some. TFC are the image of competence, both on and off the field. No matter who you are, they’re a difficult team to play against.
Chivas will find that out next week. For now, we can soak this in. We’re officially in uncharted territory, everyone.