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Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC turn heads in Champions League despite falling short

Chivas holds the trophy aloft as the celebrate winning the CONCACAF Champions League final soccer match in Guadalajara, Mexico, Wednesday, April, 25, 2018. Chivas defeated Toronto FC in a penalty shoot out. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Here are three things we learned from Toronto FC’s loss on penalty kicks to Chivas Guadalajara, and the Reds’ run as a whole to the final of the Concacaf Champions League.

1. Giovinco, class of the continent

Ever since Sebastian Giovinco’s MVP-winning 2015 season — ever since Toronto became truly competent, in other words — there has been debate as to whether the club’s highest-paid player is actually its best.

Michael Bradley has been the on- and off-field leader of the team. Jozy Altidore has been clutch come playoff time. And Victor Vázquez added his name to the mix with a sensational debut season in 2017 as TFC won its first MLS Cup.

But in this competition, the clock wound back.

Bradley was superb throughout and Altidore scored three key goals, but Giovinco dragged Toronto to the final against a higher level of competition than is found in MLS. In Mexico, in particular, the Italian was in inspirational form — and often with little support as TFC rode out waves of pressure from the likes of Tigres UANL and Club América.

Giovinco finishes the tournament with four goals, three assists and the Golden Ball as its best player. He attempted 40 shots (25 more than any other Toronto player) and created 21 chances (12 more).

The only thing missing was the trophy.

2. TFC can be proud of its run

After beating two teams regarded as the best in Mexico, Tigres and América, and playing much of the final against Chivas on the front foot, Toronto showed it belongs alongside the best Liga MX has to offer.

That will not offer much consolation to competitors like Bradley and Giovinco, who are rarely interested in moral victories.

The fact Toronto excelled in the tournament while plagued with injuries makes this run all the more impressive. And with most key players under contract, there is reasons to believe TFC can come back and take another stab at continental glory next year. Afterall, last time this team lost a final in a shootout, something special happened.

When asked by The Athletic whether this defeat will light a fire in his players the same way, Toronto coach Greg Vanney’s reply was unequivocal: “It has to.”

3. Conquering Concacaf remains tall task

MLS is getting closer.

Toronto was the league’s third finalist in the Concacaf Champions League’s modern era and its most bitter defeat yet, given the strength of the side and the way this tie was decided.

But TFC’s run, the New York Red Bulls’ progress to the semifinals and the row of recent expansion teams — New York City FC and Atlanta United chief among them — waiting for a chance at this competition should be sources of real optimism.

That said, this competition is not won with quality alone. It may only consist of four two-legged ties, but it remains a particularly grueling challenge for MLS clubs.

Toronto’s problems with injuries were no accident. The Reds came straight out of MLS preseason into an away leg against the Colorado Rapids in colder temperatures than had ever been recorded in an MLS game.

It has not been much warmer in Toronto, with a long winter wreaking havoc on the state of BMO Field’s playing surface.

And to top it all off, TFC had to go through three Mexican teams — flying back and forth and doing its best to deal with the altitude of Mexico City and Guadalajara, while simultaneously attempting to stay on track in MLS play.

Toronto threw everything at this — and may have thrown away its MLS Supporters’ Shield defense in doing so — and still came up short, albeit by the finest of margins. MLS is closer to its first continental championship, but the club that finally gets across the line will need to be prepared to take a beating along the way.

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