Wednesday’s clash between Toronto FC and Tigres was billed as a clash of heavyweights. It was a match pitting a team almost unanimously viewed as Mexico’s best over the last few seasons with a team widely regarded as one of the best in MLS history. It was a meeting of two of North America’s elite and, by and large, it lived up to the hype.
It was Toronto FC that landed the haymaker towards the end of the opening round of what turned out to be a statement win in a number of ways. But, while that statement is all well and good, it’s only a setup for what will be a more difficult test in round two.
A late Jonathan Osorio goal sealed a come-from-behind 2-1 victory for TFC, who will now head to Monterrey with a slight advantage when they take the field for Tuesday’s second leg. After conceding a goal to star forward Eduardo Vargas, TFC responded in turn, firing two goals of their own to battle back and, ultimately, pick up a historic win over a historically good Liga MX side.
“I don’t think any of us in the locker room consider it a win just yet,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “We’ve given ourselves a little bit of an advantage. We know that today was a certain level of intensity and, when we go there, it will be a whole different level of intensity. When you get to Mexico, you play the Mexican champions that don’t want to lose in front of their home crowd in their home stadium. We have to be ready to match that.”
“This is a very good team,” Michael Bradley added. “It’s been, by far, the best team in Mexico over the last few years. I thought we were able to make the game difficult on them.”
“Difficult” is one way to describe Wednesday’s match, a largely back-and-forth affair on a choppy Toronto field. The opening period saw both teams adjust to the conditions before Tigres got onto the front foot as the game wore on.
Eventually, Tigres broke through. Just moments after halftime, Vargas took advantage of a TFC mistake, rifling a shot past Alex Bono for the game’s opening goal. Just eight minutes later, TFC was back through Jozy Altidore, who bullied his defender before leveling the score at one apiece.
Osorio says Altidore’s goal was “huge”. It was one that restored a bit of confidence, spurring TFC forward as the match wore on.
“We gave away a bad goal, but it didn’t faze us,” Bradley said. “The mentality to respond in that moment was that of a big team, and a group of guys that aren’t scared or fazed by anything.”
Eventually, it was Osorio that popped up, firing a magnificent backheel flick for a goal worthy of a game-winner. The finish came in the 89th minute, sealing a TFC win in dramatic fashion.
Vanney joked that the goal came as a result of a “Jedi mind trick” he’d played on Osorio, as the coach has instructed the midfielder to worry more about defensive responsibilities than scoring goals. But, in the right moment, Osorio made his run forward and finished spectacularly.
“I saw that I was alone,” Osorio said. “I knew that Seba (Giovinco) was going to put it across and I was just waiting for it. It went a little bit behind me. Instinctively, I just backheeled it and it went in.”
“Oso’s mentality continues to make the difference for him and for us,” Bradley added. “He’s a guy that continues to fight for everything he gets. There was a period last year where things weren’t coming easy for him, and it would have been easy for him to feel sorry for himself and pack it in, but he didn’t. He kept working.”
The team as a whole will have to keep working when they get to Mexico next week in a match that will require a balanced mentality. On one hand, TFC is known for their ability score goals, leading MLS in scoring last season. On the other, attacking a Liga MX champion in Mexico is a bold decision for even the best of teams.
Osorio, Bradley, and Altidore all reiterated that, at this point, TFC has simply reached “halftime” with a lead. It’s a momentous achievement, yes, but one that will wash away if they don’t turn in a similar performance in Mexico.
“We have to protect the lead, but we have to play the way we always play and score goals,” Osorio said. “We know if we score an away goal, it puts pressure on them too. We’ll be looking for that goal, but we also know we have that advantage and that we have to protect that lead over there.”
“We just have to take that going into Mexico and play with no fear. We need to play the same way we did here in Toronto.”