Chivas players walked through the mixed zone Tuesday night, but no one stopped to speak with the press. Their message already had been sent.
"We're playing for another title. Fans and player, we're together," read the shirts many Chivas players wore during training ahead of Wednesday's second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Toronto FC, under the hashtag "directors do your part."
Others simply flipped their training tops inside out. There was no distorting things. Chivas are giving everything to win the title Wednesday. They're doing it for themselves and for the fans. For the institution? Maybe not as much.
It's been a rocky season for Chivas, and that's been in no small part because of tension between the board room and the players on the field. The tone was set before the season when Oswaldo Alanis was kept out of the majority of preseason because of a contract dispute. While Alanis wanted to head to Europe in the winter or leave as a free agent in the summer, Chivas wanted to stick with the way business normally is done in Mexico and sign the player to a new deal before selling him on.
Eventually, things gave. Alanis is expected to leave the club this summer and joined the team back on the field. That was after a poor start from Chivas was exacerbated because of how thin the team is at the back, where Alanis is a key player.
Now, the players are demonstrating publicly about the denial of bonus payments they say they were promised for winning the Liga MX and Copa MX last spring but were never delivered. With the potential of another title, and with the promise of another bonus to the players who end up lifting the trophy, they're now speaking up.
Chivas manager Matias Almeyda, who expressed support for the club rather than Alanis, wanted to avoid the subject Tuesday, saying, "It's a topic we always talk about in the locker room. I'll talk about it in particular once everything is finished. Today we're very focused on this game that's so important, in this hope that we have, this dream, so we're talking about soccer and nothing else."
His players didn't want to talk about soccer Tuesday, but Almeyda is right that there's much more on the line than back payments Wednesday night. The equation is pretty simple:
- Beating Toronto for Chivas equals a successful year. Chivas have won just one international club title in its long history (declining the chance at repeating as CONCACAF champion in 1963 to continue with a European tour). This would be the first in the modern era and give the club a chance to fly its banner as the most Mexican of teams, one that fields only Mexican players, at the Club World Cup in the winter.
- Letting the 2-1 aggregate lead slip away would equal failure. This is a team that won two titles last season, lifting the league trophy and the Copa MX. Since then, Chivas have been awful, falling short of the playoffs in both this Liga MX tournament and the last.
With absences like Alanis' (and to a lesser extent the mysterious disciplinary reasons given for Hedgardo Marin's) and injuries to key contributors, Chivas has had no choice but to focus on the CCL this season rather than try to win the league over the long haul. Almeyda has drawn up impressive game plans using resources he's been short on. Could all that fade away with the players' minds elsewhere? Chivas captain Jair Periera said there's too much at stake for the missing payments to be any sort of distraction.
"We know how to differentiate things. We know how to separate the problems. Tomorrow we're going to play for a lot of things, the future," he said at a news conference. "I hope our fans know the team still has this focus. We're more united than ever, we've got a dream and there are 90 minutes left."
That's all that separates Chivas from success and failure: 90 minutes of defending a lead, looking to expand on it and keep a Toronto FC team that has been impressive on Mexican soil from reversing the tie.
It will all be decided Wednesday night: whether or not Chivas lift the title and whether 2018 is acceptable or an abject failure for Mexico's most famous team.