TFC stands alone as LA, Seattle bow out

The LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders began Wednesday night as Major League Soccer’s best hopes of finally winning a CONCACAF Champions League, but by the end of the night, both teams were trying to figure out just what went wrong. The league was left with one last hope – a team few outside of Canada could have ever imagined would get this far.

Toronto FC used timely finishing, resolute defending, and some outstanding goalkeeping to upset the LA Galaxy, posting a 2-1 victory at Home Depot Center. The win made TFC the first Canadian team to reach the Champions League semifinals and set up a match-up with Santos Laguna, the Mexican club demolishing Seattle, 6-1, in their quarterfinal second leg in Torreon, Mexico.

Toronto wasn’t given much of a chance going into the quarterfinals, but the 2-2 draw in the first leg opened some eyes and shed some doubt on the Galaxy’s seemingly clear path to the semis. When the Galaxy lost to Real Salt Lake in MLS play on Saturday, there suddenly seemed to be reason to believe LA was vulnerable.

TFC proved that to be true early on Wednesday, pouncing early to score the opening goal courtesy of a Ryan Johnson header. When LA responded with pressure that forced a Toronto own goal, it seemed like the expected script would play out. Only Toronto wasn’t reading that script. TFC capitalized on shaky Galaxy defending yet again, nailing the eventual series-winning goal when Nick "Soolsma raced in to volley home a Johnson cross.

Toronto held on to the lead, thanks in large part to some stellar goalkeeping from Milos Kocic, and while the Galaxy could point to a Mike Magee goal in the first half that was waved off because of an incorrect offside call, the reality is the Galaxy simply weren’t good enough on a night they were expected to win with ease.

TFC exposed LA’s defense much as they did in the first leg, with Johnson abusing rookie Tommy Meyer on both goals: the first courtesy of a header off a perfect feed from Soolsma; then the second when he delivered a pinpoint pass to a streaking Soolsma for the series’ decider.

Meyer was hardly alone in putting in a poor shift for the Galaxy, but as a rookie, he was the most excusable. Neither David Beckham, Juninho, Magee or even Robbie Keane played anywhere close to the levels they played at during the Galaxy’s run to the 2011 MLS Cup title, with Magee lapsing defensively on both goals. Edson Buddle disappointed as well, looking far from being the player who led the Galaxy in goals two seasons ago.

The Galaxy played well enough to win the game, but failed to make plays when they needed them, making mistakes upon which Toronto capitalized. But as long as the list of disappointing players was for LA, head coach Bruce Arena must share the blame for the team’s failure.

It was Arena who went with the rookie Meyer instead of veteran Andrew Boyens, a decision even TFC acknowledged they were surprised by after the match. It was Arena who decided to take nine starters (six of them 30 or older) and play them in three games in eight days despite the fact the team was just coming out of pre-season.

You can point to MLS dropping the ball in having the Galaxy play a game last weekend while Toronto FC (and Seattle) had the chance to rest. For a league that has claimed to want its teams to do better in international competition, the decision was downright foolish. It wasn’t as if the Galaxy-Real Salt Lake match was a national TV game, or MLS needed LA to make up the numbers (the Chicago Fire were given the week off).

As much as you can question the league’s decision, the decision not to get his team more rest last weekend still falls back to Arena, who was aware of the schedule situation well in advance and still chose not to rest more starters. He could have started Paulo Cardozo, US Under-23 midfielder Michael Stephens and Chad Barrett against RSL and rested Beckham, Magee and Keane or Buddle. But he didn’t, and you could clearly see all three players dragging in the second half on Wednesday, when the series was on the line.

For Toronto, the victory continued an improbable and impressive run to the semifinals – one could not have been imagined six months ago when consecutive shutout losses, including a 4-0 thrashing by Mexican club Pumas, appeared to cripple Toronto’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages.

Five matches later and TFC hasn’t lost in Champions League play since. Their decisive 3-0 victory against FC Dallas to clinch a quarterfinal berth last fall felt like the perfect climax to their surprising turnaround (they were expected to lose that match as well), but on Wednesday, they showed they are not quite done writing this fairy tale.

Toronto has made this history-making run with an interesting mix of contributors: from D.C. castoff Milos Kocic in goal to German star Torsten Frings serving as the backbone of the defense, and Jamaican Ryan Johnson thriving after a journeyman career, to Dutch attackers Danny Koevermans and Nick Soolsma giving the team first-rate threats in the attack.

No, TFC isn’t close to being a finished product, and nobody should start penciling them in as MLS Cup contenders, but there is no denying they are heading in a positive direction under head coach Aron Winter. There is a very real reason for optimism about Toronto FC for the first time in a long time.

SANTOS ROUTS SEATTLE

Now Toronto faces an imposing Santos Laguna side that tore apart a good Seattle squad with five second-half goals, including two from Americans striker Herculez Gomez. The demolition was complete as it was ruthless, with Santos exposing Sounders centerback Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and left back Leo Gonzalez repeatedly. Once the Santos counterattack began clicking, and all their attacking speed began pouring forward, the Sounders were helpless to stop it.

The collapse ruined what had been, up to that point, an impressive game for Seattle against the current Mexican league leaders. They were put on the ropes by a pair of early Santos goals but responded bravely with a goal of their own from Alvaro Fernandez, and as the second half began there was a real feeling the series could go either way.

Then the floodgates opened, and Gomez continued his incredible recent run, scoring the decisive third and fourth goals of Santos’ romp to put the match out of reach, increasing his recent scoring output to seven goals in his past five matches. Even after Gomez was carted off with a cramped hamstring, Santos kept on attacking, tacking on two more goals to complete the annihilation.

There is no getting around just how embarrassing the blowout was, but there are some realities that can’t be ignored. Santos Laguna is the strongest team in Mexico right now and moved into first place last weekend despite missing star forward Carlos Darwin Quintero. They have scored eight goals in their past two Mexican league games, so destroying defenses is something they do.

That won’t make the loss any easier to take for a Seattle side that suddenly heads into the MLS season with real questions about its defense. Sure, there isn’t an offense in MLS that has the firepower Santos does, but Hurtado looked downright elderly in getting turned, beaten and torched by the Santos forwards. Gonzalez didn’t look much better.

The Santos romp, coupled with the Galaxy’s loss, means there are no American clubs left in the CONCACAF Champions League as it heads into a semifinal round that could have three Mexican clubs join Toronto FC. Real Salt Lake’s impressive run to the final a year ago won’t be matched (or exceeded), a tough blow considering just how solid the rosters for LA and Seattle are and how high the expectations were for both sides.

There is still a ray of hope for MLS, and it’s a Toronto FC side that has rekindled the love of a city that had begun to lose hope in the club it supported so fiercely in the team’s difficult formative years. As much as having the Galaxy advance would have helped some more buzz for the league (and an LA-Santos series would have created plenty of hype), there is plenty of value in TFC reaching the semifinals.

With MLS having a revamped Vancouver and a first-year Montreal in the league, seeing Toronto FC enjoy success can only help propel already soaring interest north of the border, and seeing TFC’s BMO return to the days of sell-out crowds only makes the league stronger.

The task that lies ahead is an extremely difficult one, and TFC will be given even less of a chance against Santos Laguna than they were given against the Galaxy, but for the time being Toronto has earned the honor of carrying the MLS flag in the Champions League. They are the last team standing, and they are getting pretty good at proving people wrong.