On Wednesday, the best of Major League Soccer and Liga MX square off in the Campeones Cup (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Toronto FC earned its place in the contest by winning MLS Cup last December, while Apertura 2017 winners Tigres claimed a spot in the match by virtue of their Campeones de Campeones win over Clausura 2018 champions Santos.
But despite both clubs' pedigrees, their Campeones Cup meeting comes amid an uncertain and vital part of each's season. Toronto sits in ninth place in the East, nine points adrift of the conference's final playoff place with six matches remaining; Tigres are seventh, good enough to qualify for the Liguilla if the season ended today, but there are seven clubs that could move level on points or overtake Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's team with a win.
With their domestic seasons hanging in the balance, the Campeones Cup hasn't come at the most opportune time for either Toronto or Tigres. Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall dive deeper into each's challenging campaign, and how Wednesday's matchup fits into the business end of each's remaining schedule.
When the Campeones Cup was announced back in March, it seemed like good idea at the time.
Get the champions of MLS to square off against their counterparts from Liga MX and create a kind of North American Super Cup. And while it might seem redundant given that there is already the CONCACAF Champions League to determine continental supremacy, the match looked set to provide a late diversion from the drudgery of the regular season.
As it turns out, the timing of Wednesday's Campeones Cup match between reigning MLS Cup champions Toronto FC and Liga MX counterparts UANL Tigres couldn't be much worse. Tigres is in seventh place -- just inside the playoff places -- about halfway through the 2018 Apertura, and will contest the Clasico Regiomontano this weekend against city rivals Monterrey.
TFC, meanwhile, is running on fumes in the midst of an immense championship hangover that not even its lengthy injury list can explain. The Reds are nine points out of the sixth and final playoff spot with six games left to play. Given a choice of which match is more important, Wednesday's or the weekend road tilt against the New York Red Bulls, it's clearly the latter.
To be fair, there are limitations to the crystal ball the respective leagues used in determining when to play the Campeones Cup. No one would have predicted the degree to which Toronto has struggled this season, and just how critical the upcoming Red Bulls game is to its playoff hopes. But bringing the date forward a month or so -- say just after the Canadian Championships -- would have been preferable to Wednesday's date.
Yet the match must be played, and at least in Toronto's case, it didn't have to travel to take part. And most important of all, it's the chance for TFC to claim a trophy, and to be able to do it at the expense of a Liga MX team that it eliminated from the CCL earlier this year. It just might add a shot of adrenaline to the Reds' long-shot bid to make the playoffs, as well.
The respective starting lineups will reveal the limitations imposed on each club due to the awkward timing, but prudence demands a fair bit of squad rotation, especially for Toronto.
All told, the Campeones Cup likely won't be all that it could have been. The powers that be can only hope that the action on the field exceeds the modest pre-game expectations.
-- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
When the dust settles and the trophies are added up, the 2010s in Mexican football will go down as Tigres' decade. Four Liga MX titles, six finals, one Copa MX and three consecutive Campeon de Campeones is an impressive haul and one that has started an ongoing debate about what constitutes an "equipo grande" in Mexican soccer.
But if there has been a gaping hole in Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's spell since taking over Tigres in 2010, it has been transferring that domestic success into trophies beyond Mexico's borders.
The 2015 Copa Libertadores final offered Tigres an opportunity to truly make history, but River Plate proved too strong, while the club from northern Mexico also lost in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2015-16 (to Club America) and was runner-up in 2016-17 (to Pachuca).
Wednesday's Campeones Cup against Toronto at BMO Field won't make up for past failures in finals, but for a club that has spent exuberantly this decade, a victory would at least temper the accusations from fans of traditional big clubs that Tigres can't do it outside of Mexico.
Ferretti's side comes into the match after rescuing a 1-1 tie in Estadio Hidalgo against Pachuca last Saturday, but the coach isn't happy with how his team is playing coming into the Campeones Cup.
"We didn't play well, that is the reason we didn't win," said Ferretti in a news conference after the game. "The day we play well all of the game we will have a chance of winning."
"While we are gifting away 45 minutes it is very difficult."
Tigres sit in seventh position in the league at present, within the playoff zone, but experiencing serious problems this year playing away from home. The side hasn't won a road game in the league since March 4 and has only one win in 13 away matches in Liga MX play in 2018.
Ferretti has moaned a little about only having one day's training ahead of the clash against Toronto and then having to travel back to face archrival Monterrey on Sunday -- the game was actually shifted from Saturday -- but he isn't looking beyond Toronto.
"I can't think about anything that isn't the game in Toronto," said Ferretti when asked about next weekend's Clasico Regiomontano. "We're playing for a cup and we have to take it seriously. On Thursday I will think about the next game [against Monterrey]."
It's a long way from Ferretti's historical reluctance to give continental competitions outside of the league any importance and perhaps reflects the need for Tigres to continue to pick up trophies, even new ones like the Campeones Cup. The other elephant in the room is that the Mexican federation is reportedly leaning toward Ferretti when it comes to hiring a permanent coach for the national team.
Just maybe, Wednesday could be the last chance he has to win a trophy with Tigres outside of Mexico.
-- Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup)