TFC seeks win against all odds
The Mexican city of Torreon has a reputation for being a violent and dangerous city, but security won’t be the most pressing concern of Toronto FC's trip south for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League semifinal decider (live on Fox Soccer, 8:00pm ET).
TFC's bigger worry will be trying to stop one of the most potent offenses in North America, a Santos Laguna attack that has scored a whopping 16 goals in its past four home games. And yes, this is the same team that took a strong Seattle Sounders side and crushed it 6-1 in their second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
Toronto will gain some confidence to holding Santos to one goal in their 1-1 first-leg draw in Canada last week. But it must be fully aware that Mexico’s top team has been far stronger, and far more unstoppable, at home than on the road, particularly in CONCACAF Champions League play. In fact, Santos is unbeaten at home in all competitions in 2012, with a 6-0-2 record at Estadio Corona (having outscored opponents 20-6 in those matches).
History isn't exactly on TFC's side either. A non-Mexican team has ever eliminated a Mexican club in the Champions League knockout rounds.
If this sounds like a mismatch, it's because it definitely is. Santos Laguna is in first place in the Mexican League, while Toronto FC is the only team in Major League Soccer without a point.
That won't matter much to TFC though, not after a 1-1 draw in the first leg that saw both teams lose their cool in a heated encounter that should add even more spice to Wednesday’s return.
So how will Toronto, a team that has gone winless in its past four in all competitions, rally for a historic win in Mexico, and do so without Designated Players Torsten Frings (injured) and Danny Koevermans (suspended)? It will take a heroic defensive effort, something made increasingly difficult by the absence of Frings, who was vital to Toronto’s quarterfinal series victory over the LA Galaxy.
That doesn’t mean Toronto doesn't stand a chance. Where TFC has potential for neutralizing Santos Laguna is with its considerable speed on the flanks. Santos relies heavily on the speed of its counterattack, and ability to throw numbers forward in a 4-3-3 system. Yet, with fast wingers Joao Plata and Nick Soolsma, and speedy fullbacks Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley, Toronto has the players to contain the damage from the flanks, which is what ultimately destroyed Seattle.
If Toronto is going to be able to score on Santos, it will be via those very same wings. Soolsma and Plata are fast and shifty, and with Santos missing starting fullback Osmar Mares to suspension, there is the potential for TFC to find scoring opportunities from out wide and away from Santos Laguna’s strong center backs.
Working in TFC's favor is the red-card suspension of Santos striker Darwin Quintero, the lightning-fast defense wrecker who set up his team’s lone goal in the first leg. The Mexican club’s attacking depth will help offset that absence though. Santos didn’t have Quintero when it crushed Seattle either.
The big concern for TFC is whether its central defense will be able to withstand Santos’ three-forward attack. Oribe Perlata will be a handful and if Herculez Gomez is healthy and in the starting lineup, Toronto will have a hard time keeping them under wraps.
It won’t just be stopping Santos Laguna that will be tougher for TFC than it was in the first leg. Panamanian defender Felipe Baloy is one of the top central defenders in North America and is expected to start versus Toronto after sitting out the first leg. A Baloy-Aaron Galindo defensive tandem will make things extremely difficult for Ryan Johnson at the top of Toronto’s 4-3-3.
If it’s starting to sound like Toronto FC doesn't have much of a chance, it’s because it doesn't. As impressive as its run has been in becoming the first Canadian team to reach a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal, TFC hasn’t faced an opponent as tough as Santos. Even at full strength, Toronto would be a major underdog, but without Frings and Koevermans, Toronto looks destined to face a familiar fate to the one Seattle met in the quarterfinals.
Toronto has faced long odds before. It wasn’t given much of a chance against the Galaxy before knocking off the defending MLS Cup champion in the quarterfinals, and was expected to be eliminated in the knockout round before beating FC Dallas on the road in dramatic fashion.
As much as it feels very much like a mismatch, TFC will be able to lean on its track record of beating favorites in the Champions League, as well as the memory of last week’s contentious encounter in Toronto.
That may not be enough to prevent a beating in Torreon, but it does mean TFC will walk into its showdown with Santos Laguna believing it can win.