Published On: Tue, Mar 13th, 2018

Toronto FC enters Volcano with eyes wide open

There is little doubt that Toronto FC enjoys going head-to-head with Tigres UANL.

The reigning Mexican champions — who will host the deciding leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal on Tuesday night at Estadio Universitario, also known as the Volcano — like to press and create, not unlike Toronto. It makes for a fun battle, says Reds striker Jozy Altidore, who scored the game-tying goal in Toronto’s 2-1 win in the first leg at BMO Field last week.

On the eve of the big game in Monterrey, Mexico — TFC needs a win or a tie to guarantee a spot in the semifinals — midfielder Michael Bradley said he expects another exciting game against a very good team.

“This is what we wanted,” said the captain, with the same glint in his eye as Altidore, also his teammate on the U.S. national team.

It’s not the way teams usually talk about opponents with so much on the line, but the chance to test themselves against the best competition in the region is exactly what motivated the Reds through a long pre-season and a heavy schedule in the opening weeks of Champions League play.

The level of energy and passion on display in the opener exceeded anything fans witnessed in the round of 16 against the Colorado Rapids or the Major League Soccer season opener against the Columbus Crew. The desire to prove themselves as not just a giant in MLS but a regional powerhouse helped Toronto earn the victory that gives them a slight advantage heading into Tuesday night.

MLS clubs haven’t fared well in Mexico over the years, to say the least, with just three victories in 49 competitive CONCACAF matches. The New York Red Bulls, though, were winners at Club Tijuana last week, marking the first away win for an MLS challenger over a Mexican side in the knockout stage in any iteration of the regional competition, formerly known as the Champions Cup.

“We know (the first leg) was at a certain level of intensity, and we know when we go there it’s going to be a whole different level of intensity (against) the Mexican champions, who don’t want to lose in front of their home crowd,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said last week. “We’ve got to be ready to match that intensity.”

The coach adds that MLS teams have gained ground in the regional competition with improved tactics and more difference-makers on the field.

One of the Reds’ difference-makers, attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez, remains questionable with a lower back injury. But Vazquez, who made the trip to Mexico, could still have an impact even if he doesn’t play, having played for Liga MX side Cruz Azul in 2016. He knows what it’s like to face a hostile Mexican crowd, and the mental challenge of focusing on a game plan in such an atmosphere. He thinks his teammates can learn from the mood during games back home at BMO Field, where fans also make their disdain for visitors known.

The 31-year-old isn’t the only one with experience in this area. Bradley and Altidore have also played in Mexico with the U.S. national squad. Bradley says his club has already shown mental toughness after rallying for victory in the opener after allowing the opening goal.

“We gave away a bad goal, but it didn’t phase us,” he said following that match. “The mentality to respond in that moment was that of a big team, and a group of guys who aren’t scared and who aren’t fazed by anything.”

More storylines to watch

Three more things you should know ahead of Tuesday night’s second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal between Toronto FC and Mexico’s reigning champion, Tigres UANL, at Estadio Universitario (10 p.m., TSN4/5):

ON THE SURFACE: Both sides are happy to be away from BMO Field. The Reds have one of the best groundskeeping crews in the business, but winter weather meant the field was bumpy and soft for last week’s opening leg in Toronto, a problem for the possession style both squads like to play. They won’t be complaining about the temperature, either, expected to hit 16C by kickoff.

WAKEUP CALL: TFC players lamented a slow first 15 minutes in the opener, when Tigres dominated. While the Mexican champions can play a few different styles — no matter who’s on the field or what formation they’re using — the Reds will hope to make sense of what is coming at them faster this week than last. Coach Greg Vanney said recently that the goal is to keep Tigres as far away from his team’s goal as possible. Strikers André-Pierre Gignac (who is likely to start after sitting for the first half of TFC’s win last week), Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas have the ability to do a lot of damage in a 15-minute period.

VAZQUEZ WATCH: TFC’s Victor Vazquez, who entered late in the first leg, was still considered day-to-day with a nerve problem in lower back that causes tightness in his legs. If he can’t start, expect forward Sebastian Giovinco to drop further down the field, acting as provider as well as finisher.

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Toronto FC enters Volcano with eyes wide open