MLS side Toronto FC caused shockwaves by eliminating Mexican champions Tigres from the CONCACAF Champions League. Danny Lewis watched it unfold.
Toronto FC vs Tigres UANL. MLS vs Liga MX. Sebastian Giovinco vs André-Pierre Gignac. This clash of CONCACAF’s titans brings up plenty of interesting storylines, which interlink to make the greatest of plots. The fact that they were champions of the two biggest leagues in the region last season, makes it feel as though this has come prematurely and could have easily been a final, making it one of the most highly anticipated games at this stage for a long time. Add to this the fact that MLS sides seem to be catching up with their Mexican counterparts and we have an interesting proposition on our hands. However, like all great narratives, it is the characters at the centre of the story who can truly reel you in. Grab your popcorn and settle in.
Giovinco and Gignac are both European attackers, who have left their domestic leagues for the first time in their careers, moving to the CONCACAF region. They have both found success to this point following their respective moves, but they each have one thing that is missing. When anyone leaves their comfort zone for new lands in any well thought out narrative, there always has to be one end goal. The priceless jewel that they strive to obtain. For these two, the big prize that has eluded them so far is the CONCACAF Champions League.
Allow me to introduce the two main characters of this piece, beginning with Giovinco. The man known as the Atomic Ant grew up in Turin. His love for football developed in the mud cages near his one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with his parents and younger brother. After a year of playing on the unforgiving surfaces, he was brought into the Juventus academy, where he was moulded by their winner-producing-machine, while becoming an ever-present in Italy’s youth ranks. In the end, he was made an outcast by the Old Lady and following loan spells with Empoli and Parma was sold to Toronto FC in 2015.
Since moving to The Six, the home of Drake and the CN Tower, the 5 foot 4 inch attacker has used his supreme skill, agility and a pinpoint free kick, to win a haul of team and individual accolades, including the MVP in his maiden season and the treble, made up of the Canadian Championship, Supporters Shield and MLS Cup last campaign. Along with his supporting cast of fellow Europeans Victor Vazquez and Gregory van der Wiel, as well as American stars Michael Bradley, Drew Moor and Jozy Altidore he is looking to go on and win the continental trophy.
Onto Gignac. The French giant, who has been referred to as Dédé, stands at 6 foot 1 inch. The striker was born in Martigue in the South of France, though has Romani Gypsy heritage, with his family living in caravans and working on the markets. However, his footballing career has led Gignac to great heights, representing FC Lorient, Toulouse and finally Olympique Marseille in his homeland. It was with Marseille where he had his best time in France, winning the Coupe de la Ligue twice and attracting the attention of European giants including Inter Milan.
However, having turned down the glamour of Milan, he chose one of the most dangerous places in Mexico and joined Tigres UANL in 2015, moving to Monterrey, a place known for drug cartels, Norteńo music and the Macroplaza. Gignac has impressed since becoming the first Frenchman to play in Liga MX, earning himself a place in France’s Euro 2016 squad, winning the Liga MX Apertura in all three of his seasons there, as well as two Campeón de Campeones and multiple individual honours. However, the one thing that has slipped through his grasp is the CONCACAF Champions League. In each of the last two seasons Gignac and his teammates have reached the final, but despite the Frenchman scoring in one of those, he has come out on the losing side of both. Alongside fellow Frenchman Timothee Kolodziejczak, South Americans Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas as well as local boys Hugo Ayala and Javier Aquino, Gignac will be desperate to make it third time lucky and get his hands on the trophy this year.
There are other Europeans who have made the same trip across the pond in pursuit of success, notably Bradley Wright-Phillips with New York Red Bulls, Stefan Frei at Seattle Sounders and Jeremy Menez who is part of Club America’s marauding squad. However, this clash between Gignac and Giovinco and the two biggest sides in the competition, is the main event of the competition’s narrative so far.
The battle between Toronto FC and Tigres started in Canada, at BMO Field. With Canada’s notoriously harsh weather, the pitch was in poor condition, producing a reel of action shots with turf flying through the air, as bodies slowly hit the floor. Gignac started the game on the bench, coming onto the field of play at halftime. Giovinco hadn’t managed to do much before the Frenchman’s arrival and with the score at 0-0, it seemed as though the lull of the first half was all part of the plot, giving the two talismanic figures an equal playing field when they eventually crossed paths on the pitch.
The match truly came to life just seven minutes after Gignac’s arrival, as his Chilean strike partner Eduardo Vargas got in behind Chris Mavinga to get on the end of a looped header by Larry Vazquez, ruthlessly volleying the ball into the far corner despite being forced away from goal. With Gignac lingering in the background like a supervillain ready to pounce if needed, Vargas took his opportunity to strike like a meticulously trained henchman yearning for his moment of glory. This took Tigres and Gignac one step closer to their end goal.
However, this lead only lasted eight minutes as there was another twist in the tale. Giovinco picked the ball up from a throw-in and squared it to Marco Delgado, who then slipped it through to Jozy Altidore. Giovinco’s partner in crime held off Tigres defender Juninho to protect the ball, before firing it past Nahuel Guzman and emphatically celebrating the moment of brilliance that got his team back on a level playing field.
However, this leg of the race for victory wasn’t over yet. With each side’s European talisman having created opportunities already, it was the Italian who found the key to unlock the door and get ahead. With just minutes left on the clock, Drew Moor laid the ball off to Giovinco, who played the ball across to Jonathan Osorio. With one deft flick, the Canadian put Toronto FC ahead, flinging the trap door open and racing through it with his teammates following in celebration, as he made the score 2-1.
The final whistle blew just minutes after the goal, signifying the end of the first leg, with both teams going away to prepare for the second round of battle in Monterrey. Mexican sides have dominated this contest in recent years, so many will have been shocked by the scoreline going into the tie’s halfway point, but for now Toronto and Giovinco had opened up a slim advantage.
In the scenes before the two clashes, Giovinco and his companions were able to get some rest in, as they didn’t have an MLS fixture. Tigres meanwhile, had a domestic game in their Estadio Universitario against Tijuana, who had also lost in the CONCACAF Champions League in their previous fixture. This certainly acted as a reminder as to why André-Pierre Gignac is someone who Toronto FC should be wary of, after a few testing shots, he jinked past the unsuspecting opposition, before sending a cannon of a shot into the top corner from over 30 yards out.
Around 2,000 miles away from BMO Field, the second leg took place in Estadio Universitario. Whereas the conditions in Toronto had been harsh, the match played out in Monterrey was done so in 18-degree heat, on a pristine pitch. It wasn’t just the weather that had heated up, as Tigres were still visibly frustrated by the fact that they were going into this contest a goal down. With Tijuana having just been knocked out by New York Red Bulls, losing 5-1 on aggregate, Tigres didn’t want to become the second Mexican club to be knocked out by an MLS team in one day, especially considering their country’s dominance in this competition in recent years.
Despite the Mexican side’s eagerness to get back on level terms, there really wasn’t too much action in the first half, with Justin Morrow being unable to continue after 15 minutes, being replaced by Auro Jr due to injury, is one of the biggest talking points. However, some of the best scenes in history are those in which there is a lull at the beginning, before springing to life after one moment. Exciting Tigres winger Jurgen Damm coming on for full-back Alberto Acosta began to force the issue, but once again it was Giovinco getting results for Toronto.
It was in the 64th minute that the Italian created the game’s opening goal. With the ball in the corner, Giovinco played a pass to Osorio, made a run behind the two defenders who were drawn in by the Canadian, allowing the midfielder to play the ball back to his talismanic teammate. Giovinco then played a pass which was intended for Altidore, but eventually went in off Rafael Carioca, rolled through the legs of Jorge Torres and into the net. There was a huge slice of luck involved, but this was a heavy blow to be struck at this stage, which meant that Tigres would now have to get two goals back to even get the game to extra time.
It was just five minutes later that the Mexican side got themselves on the scoresheet and back into the game though. A corner was delivered towards the front post, which was flicked on by the substitute Damm, towards Vargas who, just as he had done in the first leg, ruthlessly finished off his chance, this time heading it way out of Alex Bono’s reach.
However, Sebastian Giovinco wasn’t going to let Tigres get too close to getting back into this just yet. There may have been a slice of luck in his creation of the second leg’s first goal, but there was nothing fortunate about this. The Atomic Ant has become world-renowned for his free kicks -you could call it his superpower- and he showed why here. Having had a tester shot earlier in the half, the Italian sent the ball flying right into the very top corner of the goal in the 73rd minute. Guzman had scrambled across the goal and even got his hand to the ball, but there was no way that he was keeping it out, as he ended up leant up against the post in disbelief with the ball having squirmed over the line despite his best efforts. While Guzman stood shell-shocked, Giovinco and his teammates ran off in celebration (which the Italian started doing before the ball had even gone in).
Up to this point, Gignac had cut a frustrated figure, not really being able to make his mark on the action. He had to wait until the 84th minute to get his first goal of the tie. Jesus Duenas had forced his way into the box, before sending the ball across the face of goal, where the Frenchman was waiting to turn it in. Things really got interesting eight minutes later, when a handball decision was given against Gregory van der Wiel, with Gignac stepping up to take the penalty. Bono dived the right way, but Gignac had hit the ball with enough power for it to sneak under the goalkeeper’s body.
The stadium erupted, there wasn’t much time left at all, but they had a slither of hope with the night’s score at 3-2, making it 4-4 on aggregate. Just one more goal was needed. Tigres through everything that had to try and get the goal they needed to get through, but while Gignac’s late contribution had added late drama to the proceedings, handing hope to the Tigres fans, it was not enough as the final whistle eventually blew. Toronto FC had been victorious, getting the pass through thanks to away goals. After 180 minutes, Toronto had managed to get past the team who had been finalists in both of the last two seasons. There were incredible contributions from across their squad, but Giovinco’s influence cannot be understated, with the Italian playing a hand in all four of their goals across the two legs.
The Reds will now face Club America in the competition’s semi final as they look to push on to secure the CONCACAF Champions League trophy. However, looking at the chapter that has just concluded, there are plenty of talking points to be taken away. With New York Red Bulls and now Toronto both beating Liga MX opposition in the same night, should the MLS still be seen as inferior, as it has been by many? Giovinco has shown once again that he is able to deliver on the biggest stages at this level and Toronto FC will surely be among the favourites to win the competition now, having just knocked out the biggest of the Mexican sides. It’s no conclusion though, as having just knocked out the biggest name in the competition, Toronto now face the hardest team left in it; a team who have wiped away their previous opposition with ease.
As the credits begin and everyone filters out of the theatre, I for one can’t wait for the sequel in April.