Don't let the table fool you. Club America is sitting fourth in Liga MX, but has been the best team in Mexico this season.
Toluca, the only club to defeat America in 2018, is the hottest team in the league. The current leaders, though, haven't had to deal with the demands of the CONCACAF Champions League. America has integrated its new arrivals, participated in two tournaments and is playing some of the best soccer in the Americas.
After a mood-boosting comeback win Saturday over Mexico City rival Cruz Azul, Las Aguias flew north to Toronto FC for the first leg of their CCL semifinal. The Clasico Joven put a few of America's strengths on display but also laid bare a few of its weaknesses.
One of the strengths is Mateus Uribe, the tremendous Colombian midfielder who scored America's opening goal this weekend. He later came off, with America manager Miguel Herrera giving him a bit of rest after he played two matches with Colombia last week and faces CCL play this week.
He can start attacks with long balls after winning possession back in the midfield but is better when he gets forward and joins the attack. The battle between Uribe and Michael Bradley should be fantastic, and will be something to keep an eye on, even when the ball is on the wings.
America's other big strength is in defense, where the club should have its starting four for the first time in weeks after a combination of suspensions and injuries forced Edson Alvarez into action at right back and center back. Paul Aguilar, Bruno Valdez, Emanuel Aguilera and Carlos Vargas have been the best back four in Mexico this season, and even with the absences the club has allowed just 10 goals in 13 league matches.
Herrera, a fiery right back during his playing career, has made identifying defensive talent a hallmark as a manager. The left side of his defense is imported from Club Tijuana, with Aguilera arriving this winter, Vargas this past summer and even central midfielder Guido Rodriguez heading to the capital to join Herrera after playing with Xolos.
Aguilar holds down the right side, while Valdez's absence was notable against La Maquina. Alvarez can and has stepped in, but the rest of the unit has showed the talent needed to keep the promising 20-year-old on the bench, much to the chagrin of Mexico national team fans.
There have been times, though, such as the final 15 minutes against Cruz Azul or the second half against Toluca, when America loses control of the game. The defense is difficult to break down but has faltered on set pieces this season. The back line also had difficulty dealing with former America star Rubens Sambueza, and TFC coach Greg Vanney has to have shown Sebastian Giovinco that tape so he can see what a playmaker starting on the outside and cutting in can find when he works against America.
In many ways, Toronto already has drawn its own blueprint for how to exploit those weaknesses. The Reds beat Tigres behind a home victory in the first leg and came out to play in the second as well, getting help from an own goal and a beautiful Giovinco free kick in El Volcan.
Then, they held on for dear life. The Estadio Azteca presents its own challenges, not least of which is the significant jump in altitude between Toronto (or Monterrey) and Mexico City. Consider those factors or don't, we all can agree that TFC has to win the first leg.
With Oribe Peralta questionable for the game after suffering a rib injury that was at least serious enough to cause him to miss the post-match team photo, TFC again has a chance to take advantage of a team without its best striker as it did when Tigres rested Andre-Pierre Gignac for a portion of the first leg of the quarterfinals.
— Oribe Peralta (@OribePeralta) April 1, 2018
Like Tigres, America has plenty of depth up front. Henry Martin has been excellent since arriving from Tijuana this offseason, keeping higher-profile players on the bench at the start of the year. Still, with Jeremy Menez out with an injury, Peralta questionable and several young players potentially seeing time for America on Tuesday, TFC must capitalize on its opportunity to get an advantage in the first leg and shift the pressure onto the Liga MX side heading into the second leg.
There is no team that has carved up competition in the CCL like America has this season. Las Aguilas arrive after a 7-1 aggregate victory in the quarterfinals and, move impressive, dispatched Saprissa with a 5-1 road victory before seeing out the 6-2 aggregate win at home.
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Toronto has everything it needs to challenge America for regional supremacy, but if the Reds don't start well and make the most of the first leg, they won't be able to become the first MLS team to lift the CCL trophy.