While the Final Four takes place this weekend in San Antonio to determine the best college basketball team in the US, it’s a different final four that holds the attention of soccer fans around North America this week. The Concacaf (yes, it’s not CONCACAF anymore) Champions League is returning with two thrilling semifinal clashes.
The quarterfinals produced some fantastic series, including not one, but two victories for MLS sides over Liga MX teams. Toronto went toe to toe with Tigres and held on for an intense series victory, while the Red Bulls pounded Tijuana 5-1 over two legs.
This leads us to two more MLS-Liga MX clashes in the semis, and thus, potentially an MLS-Liga MX final. Fans of both leagues, even if they don’t support the teams left in the competition, will be able to feel the stakes of these matches with local bragging rights on the line.
Toronto FC (Canada) vs Club América (Mexico)
It’s certainly the more eye-catching of the two series. América are the big bad villains of the Liga MX, and the most successful team in Concacaf history. They’ve become Club World Cup regulars over the past few years, and were the favorites to win the competition this year from the jump.
Toronto, as has been said many times before, were the best MLS team of all time last season, and have continued that success so far in 2018. Though they’ve had a slow start in the league, everyone who doubted Toronto’s legitimacy received a wake up call when they knocked out Tigres in the last round; not by fluke or by penalties, either. Toronto were the superior team to Tigres over two legs, and scored twice in Monterrey to clinch the series.
América have earned the right to host the second leg thanks to a better goal difference through the first two rounds, which means Toronto will once again need to hold serve at home the same way they did against Tigres. And like in that Tigres series, I think an away goal for América would be very hard to turn around.
Toronto showed up at El Volcán, but it’s hard to imagine them doing the same thing again in Mexico City. That doesn’t mean TFC don’t have a chance though. If they can keep América off the board in the first leg they have at worst a 50/50 shot heading into the second leg.
The key player in this series, as is the case in any series involving Toronto, has to be Sebastian Giovinco. Like Toronto as a whole, Giovinco proved the doubters wrong by tormenting Tigres over both legs. That same kind of performance will be needed to beat América. If Giovinco is on his A game, Toronto are absolutely capable of taking the series. If not, América will probably be headed back to the final for the third time in four years.
CD Guadalajara (Mexico) vs New York Red Bulls (USA)
I don’t think too many people had this one in their CCL bracket predictions. Of all the MLS teams in the quarterfinals, the Red Bulls were considered to have the least chance of advancing. Toronto are a great team, and Seattle had a weak opponent by Liga MX standards; New York were not a particularly great team last year and Tijuana was expected to be a defensive wall.
As it turned out, Bradley Wright-Phillips had no trouble dismantling the Xolos defense, and the Red Bulls cruised into the semifinals. Chivas, on the other hand, grinded out an ugly series victory against Seattle, and were in all honesty probably the worse team over the whole 180 minutes.
Seattle didn’t capitalize on their chances though, and Chivas did, so here they are. Chivas just picked up a big road win against Morelia in the league this weekend, so perhaps they can carry some of that momentum into the midweek showdown.
New York picked up a massive first leg win away from home against Tijuana, and another win in Mexico would be a formula for success. Bradley Wright-Phillips is in fantastic form at the moment and will be tough for Chivas to contain.
Further complicating matters for Chivas, is that after the win against Morelia, they are back in the playoff fold (albeit on the outside looking in) and can’t focus 100% on this series anymore. While it once looked like they could go all in on the CCL, they may need to rotate the lineup a bit depending on how they approach the final few Liga MX matches of the season.
Like Giovinco in the other series, BWP’s performance will be the most important. If Chivas can shut him down, they should take this series. Sounds like a simple enough gameplan, but in practice, it won’t be so easy. To me, this series is a real toss up, but Chivas have that x-factor of knowing how to win knockout series, so I give them the slightest edge.