Toronto FC 1 Santos Laguna 1
The Prelude to Battle
On a day in which Toronto FC should have been celebrated for becoming the first Canadian team to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, both the team and its fans likely entered this fixture with a sense of trepidation. After an unbelievable victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the quarter-finals, Toronto FC lost badly in two MLS fixtures and lost their best player and leader, Torsten Frings, to injury.
While TFC players like CONCACAF superhero Ryan Johnson were preaching confidence and stating that the Reds were in the right frame of mind to compete and pull out a result, most prognosticators predicted going into this fixture that the home side was in tough against a very formidable opponent.
Santos Laguna advanced to their second ever appearance in the CCL semifinals with an assured and awesome 6-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders (winning the two leg series 7-3 on aggregate). As perennial Primera Division contenders, Santos went in this game boasting a fantastic attack that was sure to test Toronto’s shaky Frings-less back line and ready punish any errors.
Interestingly, Aron Winter did not make any changes to the back line that struggled against San Jose on Saturday, but instead did make a couple of changes to the TFC attack, with the Dutch duo of Danny Koevermans and Nick Soolsma starting in place of Joao Plata and Luis Silva.
The Opening Forty-Five
This one kicked off with Toronto lining up in 4-1-2-3 formation with Julian de Guzman generally playing as deep lying midfielder right in front of the back four.
Toronto first scoring chance came in the 8th minute after some nice work by Reggie Lambe earned TFC a a free kick a few yards outside the Santos box. Danny Koevermans got a strike through traffic, but keeper Oswaldo Sanchez was well positioned to make the save.
Milos Kocic made a diving save in the 19th minute on the first scoring chance of the game by Santos on a nice volley shot by Herculez Gomez.
As if often the case in these CONCACAF fixtures, the visiting team really appeared to enjoy the BMO Field grass, as they were lying down constantly in order to get a closer look.
Santos opened the scoring 31st minute on exactly the type of goal that the Mexican side engineered again and again against Seattle in the quarterfinals, with a well timed run and finish by Gomez giving Santos an important away tally.
From that point on it was all TFC for the remainder of the half, as the Reds showed excellent character and a determination to bounce back.
In the 35th minute a fantastic turn in the box by Koevermans almost allowed TFC to tie things up, but Santos was able to clear the ball to safety.
An undeterred Toronto FC tied the score two minutes later after some excellent forward movement by Johnson earned the men in red a free kick. Miguel Aceval stepped up and delivered a perfectly placed blast from 25 yards out to beat Sanchez.
||Much improved effort from @torontofc - showed fight, pride & determination. Underdogs in Mexico but they said they couldn't win in LA. #TFC
The Second Half
Santos came out of the half-time break and took the game to TFC with a renewed vigor, as a cold night in Toronto started to heat up with TFC doing well to match the Mexicans chance for chance.
Toronto almost took the lead in the 63rd minute when De Guzman delivered a perfect cross to Johnson, who redirected the ball just inches outside the far post.
TFC came close again in the 68th minute when a beautiful turn and shot by Nick Soolsma hit the side netting.
In a bit of a recurring theme, Toronto came within inches of a goal again in the 72nd minute when Johnson sent in a free kick that Terry Dunfield redirected just wide of the left post.
Santos went down to ten men when Osmar Mares was given a straight red card for a studs up tackle on Richard Eckersley.
TFC would use that man advantage to dominate the run of play for the remainder of regulation and five minutes of extra time, but could not break through to find a winner. Their best chance came from substitute Joao Plata, who cut in and got a shot off. Unfortunately for the 18,000 plus fans in attendance, it went right into the arms of Sanchez.
This one almost boiled over completely at the closing whistle, Santos forward Darwin Quintero literally mugged Ashtone Morgan and his head butt earned a red card. That not so evolved action set off a melee with both teams pushing and shoving in a manner that is pretty much regular in Mexican football. A BMO Field security guard even got in on the action and had to be separated from a Mexican player by none other than Danny Koevermans.
The Final Word: Poor finishing TFC’s undoing with a win well within their grasp
While TFC were unable to pull out a win, this match had pretty much everything else TFC fans could have asked for. The Reds showed plenty of mettle in delivering ninety minutes in which TFC were the better team. Outside of the goal by Herculez Gomez, the Toronto back line held up well, as the home side played solid team defense for the entire game. Furthermore, when Santos did engineer a chance, TFC keeper Milos Kocic was there to come up big as a final line of defense.
Team Captain Julian de Guzman delivered one of his best performances as a member of Toronto FC, as he once again looked excellent against Mexican competition. It’s becoming clear that his style of play suits playing smaller, more technical teams and he was a lynchpin who was always moving and making himself available to his teammates throughout this fixture.
The Dutch duo of Danny Koevermans and Nick Soolsma gave the Santos defense plenty of trouble and Aron Winter should be commended for his tactical gamble not to start those two players last Saturday against San Jose. Neither player scored, but they looked fresh and were dangerous and generated a lot of scoring chances.
While several members of TFC delivered top notch performances in this game, the biggest positive was the fact that the team did not look like a squad that was missing injured captain Torsten Frings. In this sense, this performance could build very positive momentum for the team in the MLS.
However, as good as Toronto were, the men in red could ultimately end up ruing their missed chances in this game. The Reds had multiple chances to put this one away, but their final finish evaded them again and again. Their movement was excellent and they generated chance after chance, but were not clinical enough on plays that should have ended with the ball in the back of the Santos net.
With the draw and an away goal advantage for Santos, Toronto will now head to Mexico for the second leg facing what is probably the biggest challenge the team has ever faced. While Toronto were able to pull out vital away results against FC Dallas and Los Angeles in the previous two rounds of the competition, playing at altitude in Mexico will take the challenge to a whole other level of difficulty. Furthermore, the testy nature of this game makes it almost certainty that it will be a powder keg of an atmosphere at Torrean. If TFC are to pull off a Mission Impossible victory in Mexico next week, they will have to do it without centre forward Danny Koevermans, who picked up a yellow card and will be suspended for accumulation.
6 De Guzman
(49) Maund in for Aceval; (72) Plata in for Soolsma.