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Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney, left to right, midfielder Jonathan Osorio and striker Jozy Altidore hold up the Campeones Cup scarf ahead of Wednesday's meeting with Mexico's Tigres UANL, in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2018.Neil Davidson/The Canadian Press

Toronto FC said all the right things Tuesday in the buildup to the inaugural Campeones Cup.

A midweek one-off game with Mexican champion Tigres UANL, in the midst of a desperate chase to make the MLS playoffs, is hardly a welcome addition to TFC’s already crowded calendar. But a trophy and the chance at US$340,000 in prize money helps elevate Wednesday’s meeting at BMO Field for the MLS champions.

“Is it the perfect timing? No,” Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said.

But he says the MLS champions, while struggling in league play, are up for the challenge.

“I know our guys. I could see it in their energy today, they’re excited to play this game,” Vanney said. “It’s one game outside of what’s going on in the league for the moment, but it’s also a championship, it’s a Cup and our guys are motivated for games like this.”

“It’s a Cup, it’s a final,” echoed midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who handled questions in English and Spanish. “As players, this is what we play for.”

Added striker Jozy Altidore: “It’s a huge opportunity. ... We want to show well [Wednesday] night.”

But TFC players are also trying to revive an MLS season that is slipping from their grasp. Toronto, nine points out of a playoff spot with six league games remaining, visits the New York Red Bulls on Saturday desperate to climb the standings.

Vanney said he will field first-team players Wednesday in the first of what will be an annual meeting of MLS and Mexican champions.

“It’s new but I think in the next five years or so, this is going to become an important cup in the calendar,” he said.

MLS, which had 16 stories on Wednesday’s game posted on its website, already thinks it has reached that status.

Mexican teams currently hold a 42-8-10 edge against MLS opposition in competitive matches, although MLS sides went 6-4-2 against Mexican foes in the CONCACAF Champions League this year.

The two clubs have history, with Toronto defeating Tigres on away goals in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals in March. TFC won 2-1 at home and lost 3-2 at Monterrey.

Toronto, which also beat Club America in the CONCACAF club semi-final, eventually lost on penalties to Chivas Guadalajara in the final. The MLS champions have stumbled ever since.

“We’re a product in some ways of what we put into that event,” Vanney said of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Both teams have struggled of late.

Tigres (4-3-2) currently stand seventh in the Mexican standings, although they are unbeaten in four (2-0-2). Toronto (8-16-4) has struggled to keep its head above regular-season water and stands 19th over all in MLS (ninth in the East).

Toronto is coming off a 5-3 weekend win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in a game that saw it squander a 3-0 lead.

Citing his team’s demanding early-season schedule and ensuing rash of injuries, Vanney said Toronto had suffered from a lack of continuity and momentum.

“The way MLS is set up, there’s a fair amount of parity throughout the league and you have to be able to perform week in and week out or else you’re going to get caught,” Vanney said.

“We’ve lacked continuity throughout the course of the season and I think our performances have been inconsistent, our play has been inconsistent and because of that we’ve dropped games along the way in the league.”

Vanney says despite the frustrating season, his team “is in a good place to attack this final stretch.”

“When healthy I think we’re as good as anybody and can beat anybody anywhere in this league,” he added.

It just hasn’t happened often enough this year.

Toronto, which went 20-5-9 last season in its championship run, has struggled to an 8-14-6 record this season. Plus a team that gave up just 37 goals during the 2017 regular season has conceded 55 goals already.

Perhaps a brand new trophy will help.

The Campeones Cup weighs 9.6 kilograms and measures some 50 centimetres with a base made of obsidian extracted from Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city located northeast of Mexico City.

In addition to the trophy, Toronto players are going after a purse of US$240,000 with another US$100,000 on top of that if they win.

A win Wednesday and Toronto will celebrate a fifth trophy in 15 months, having previously won the 2017 and 2018 Canadian Championships, the 2017 Supporters’ Shield and 2017 MLS Cup.

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