[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Contrasts abound in the Concacaf Champions League, in which teams rich and modest from utterly different climes and cultures cross thousands of miles to contest a regional crown. Though both play in MLS, Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy are about as far apart -- geographically, politically, and meteorologically -- as two major cities can be that compete in the same league. When they open their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, Galavision), another glaring difference will be evident: the crowd.
TFC has sold 45,000 tickets as host of the first leg, to be staged at the Rogers Centre instead of the club’s usual home, BMO Field. Because of stringent crowd restrictions for weeknight events at Home Depot Center, which abuts the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills, only 7,500 fans will be able to attend the second leg next week.
“I think it just shows how unique the game is for us and how big of a game it is for the club and the fans,” he said TFC defender Ty Harden, a former Galaxy player, to mlssoccer.com. “I think definitely playing in front of 45,000 or 50,000 is a little bit of added something. When the crowd’s into it, you can feel the energy in the place, and that energy it translates to players and you can feel it.”
The crowd factor in itself won’t present a huge edge to TFC, which last year missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year to extend its perfect record of futility since entering the league in 2007. It finished 6-13-15 and with 33 points, which ranked 16th (of 18 teams) in the league and was less than one-half of the 67 points compiled by the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double-winner.
Galaxy players and officials acknowledge one of the team’s priorities is to go a step further than RSL did in last year’s knockout phases. A 2-2 tie on the road in the first leg of the final put RSL on track to capture the title, but it lost the second leg at home, 1-0, to Monterrey.
“The Champions’ League is going to be a little bit of a curveball early on,” says Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant of ramping up for knockout play in early March. “We have to be ready. It’s a huge competition and we’re putting a lot into it.
“There’s a big emphasis on that tournament now, which hasn’t been there in the past. You can probably credit Salt Lake for opening up the league’s eyes to that last year. It’s certainly something we want to accomplish.”
TFC can draw confidence from its improved performances following the August arrival of holding mid Torsten Frings and forward Danny Koevermans, and the absence of Galaxy keystone Omar Gonzalez, the 2011 Defender of the Year who is sidelined by a torn ACL. Entering the second season under Dutch head coach Aron Winter, TFC is utilizing his 4-3-3 formation to exploit the evasive dribbling of Joao Plata, the blossoming confidence of rookie Luis Silva, and the predatory instincts of Koevermans.
“First of all, we want to be the first Toronto FC side to make the playoffs,” Harden said. “That’s our top goal. But going to the semifinals of the Champions League, there’s a lot to play for and a lot to be excited about.”
The injury to Gonzalez, Landon Donovan’s recent bout with bronchitis, and a few defeats in preseason might cast the Galaxy as perhaps a tad vulnerable, at least in the first leg on the Rogers Centre artificial turf. Losses to Portland (4-1), Montreal (3-0), and Houston (1-0) came early in preseason. Many regulars left during the Desert Diamond Cup to prepare for the start of competitive play, and still the Galaxy won the tournament by edging New England on penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie in the final.
TFC has already vanquished one MLS foe in the Concacaf arena. It qualified for the quarterfinals at the expense of FC Dallas, which it thrashed, 3-0, at Pizza Hut Park in a must-win group finale last October. In league play against the Galaxy last year, it tied 0-0 at home and 2-2 at Home Depot, on the away goals rule would have been enough to advance. And the 22,453 fans it drew to BMO Field for the home leg surpassed the 20,675 attendance at HDC.
The discrepancy in the stands this time will be far greater. Whether it makes much difference on the field or not, there’s great cause for motivation within both teams. The experience of the Galaxy back line could be a critical factor, especially if rookie defender Tommy Meyers continues as Gonzalez’s replacement.
“I think we’d rather go to Canada than Mexico without a doubt,” said Dunivant about drawing a northern rival rather than one further south. “But Toronto’s put a lot into this as well. This is a big success for them. They didn’t make the [MLS] playoffs, which was their No. 1 goal, but they advanced out of their Concacaf group. They’re not going to be an easy game, or series, by any means.”