Know Your Enemy - Santos Laguna: CCL Edition - Leg One

High balls into the box for Ryan Johnson to attack might not be a bad idea.

Wednesday night bears witness to Toronto FC making a bit of Canadian Soccer history as they take the field against Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals.

But what awaits the side in their Mexican opponents?

Los Guerreros - The Warriors - currently sit atop the Mexican Primera table, tied with Morelia on points, but taking the tiebreaker on number of goals scored. Undefeated in their last four league fixtures and responding to a 2-1 loss in Seattle with a 6-1 rout in the return leg in the Champions League, TFC have their hands full.

Can they match what Montreal accomplished in 2008? A 2-0 win in front of a huge crowd at Stade Olympique saw the Impact head down to Mexico with a two-goal cushion.

As Montreal experienced, the return leg in Torreón will be difficult; even a two-goal lead is not secure. But talk of the second leg is premature; the first is still to come.

The Lineup

In their most recent Champions League matches Santos lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Following that logic, it is respectable to expect them to take the pitch as follows:

football formations

Legendary keeper and captain Oswaldo Sanchez between the pipes; from right to left - Jorge Ivan Estrada, Aaron Galindo, Panamanian national team captain - Felipe Baloy, and Osmar Mares across the back; Rodolfo Salinas and Marc Crosas - formerly of Celtic - sitting deep in the midfield; Hercules Gomez, Carlos Darwin Quintero, and Christian Suarez in the attack; with Oribe Peralta sitting atop the formation

Santos will be without vice-captain and experienced midfielder Juan Pablo Rodriguez who is suspended due to yellow card accumulation and creative attacking midfielder Daniel Luduena who did not travel to Toronto having picked up a knock on the weekend and wishing to avoid further injury.

Dynamic attacker Quintero is back fit, having missed the series with Seattle. He started against Cruz Azul the previous weekend and played the second forty-five against Queretaro this, but will his return compromise the attacking system that has proved so devastating of late. He will be replacing Luduena who is more of a playmaker in that position, with Quintero more likely to score himself than provide for others.

Centre-back Aaron Galindo, who started both matches against Seattle, will be well rested, having seen red against Cruz Azul and sitting out this weekend.

Left-back is a problem position for Santos, with any number of players - Cesar Ibanez or Jose Antonio Olvera - possibly seeing the field in Mares' stead.

The Tactics

For a detailed run down of the events between Santos and Seattle, go read Waking the Red's preview of Toronto FC's match against the Sounders, in particular ‘The Form' section.

All three goals conceded by Santos against Seattle came from deliveries whipped into the box, be they crosses or free kicks.

Santos looks to exploit gaps in the defense with a quick transition game, moving the ball skillfully up-field - as with the majority of the goals in the second leg - though they can also break down packed defenses with a bit of trickery - see Crosas' pass to Gomez for their lone away goal.

That quick play pairs well with Peralta as a front man, who can move the ball comfortably, has enough speed to be a threat, and is sturdy enough to battle with the big central defenders. His goal in the second leg saw him out position and out muscle Hurtado using a deft touch to create a yard of space for a shot, which he got off as the bigger Colombian pulled him down, to devastating effect.

He will occupy at least one of the centre-backs, if not both, draining attention away from the speedier wide attackers.

Santos tends to play the ball on the ground, but are not averse to occasionally looking long should the opportunity present itself. Triangles, one-twos; they will really slow the game down and then pounce on openings once they are created.

Both wide attackers are capable on either flank, and will periodically switch sides. They will seek to stretch the pitch when they get the chance, both in length and in width. Be wary of the right full-back Estrada getting involved in the attack, it was his pushing forward in the second leg that overpowered Seattle giving impetus to the ensuing rout.

In the two matches with Seattle, Santos showed a love for a slipped-ball, drawing the defenders one way and feeding a pass the other. Crosas picked out Gomez with such a ball in the first leg, while almost every goal in the second saw defenders being sucked towards the carrier, only to watch a ball passed into the space they vacated punish them.

Expect the unexpected from set-pieces, rather than lumping the ball into the box for an easy clearance they will look to change the angle for a better shot, such as when they caught Seattle off-guard by squaring the ball to the unmarked Crosas for a solid attempt on goal.

On corner kicks their big central defenders will come up to provide some height and mass.

The Form

Despite exhibiting exceptional home form and solid performances away in the league, Santos are beatable on the road both in the league and in CONCACAF. They fell in Seattle to the Sounders 2-1 and twice dropped points in the group stage - a loss in El Salvador to Isidro Metapan and a draw in Honduras with Real Espana.

Their destruction of Seattle in the return leg will be a cause for concern, but this is Toronto's home leg.

Though on a tear in the league - unbeaten in four, outscoring their opponents 11-4 during that stretch - it has come against lower tier clubs.

Their 2-0 win on the weekend over last-placed Queretaro was aided by the dismissal of two opponents and a penalty kick, before Gomez placed an excellent header from a right-sided corner kick across the keeper high into the side netting.

Exploitation

Toronto has experience facing Mexican sides at BMO, even finding some success. A 1-1 draw with UNAM Pumas in this rendition's group stage and a famous 2-1 win over Cruz Azul the year before.

Joao Plata, Ryan Johnson and Julian de Guzman have all shown increased output in the Champions League, raising their performances to match the occasion. They will all have to be clinical tonight. de Guzman especially must provide the backbone and leadership the team is lacking without Frings if they are to find success.

Wide play and getting crosses into the box will be paramount. Santos is vulnerable to set-pieces - free kicks and corners will be very important, but if Toronto's centre-backs come up for them, maintaining possession and limiting Santos' ability to quickly counter will prove vital.

If TFC's delivery is as poor as it was on the weekend, expect to see some end to end action, which will not be good.

Santos exhibited slack marking and general nervousness at defending balls into the box against Seattle. They become very compact at the back in such situations with all four defenders compressed into a ten yard space on occasion. It is important to spread them out with attacking width and create holes for Johnson, Luis Silva, and Danny Koevermans to operate within.

That Seattle only scored on headers is an important factor to consider. In MLS play the Sounders have scored none from the air, four from open play - usually a fast break - and a penalty kick against Houston. Seattle was forced into a different style of play to that they prefer. Toronto matches up better with those weaknesses in the Santos defense with bigger forwards to exploit crosses from wide and speedier wide men to get into position to deliver those balls.

Of course Seattle destroyed Toronto playing the way Santos did against them, but optimism and home field advantage can go some way towards affecting the balance of play. Confidence and execution will serve Toronto well in this tie.

Pressing high and maintaining pressure will create turnovers and limit Santos' ability to exploit Toronto's slow defense. Maintaining a high line will be dangerous with the Mexican side's pace, but if done properly, could catch them offside regularly, as it did in Los Angeles.

Santos are not a big side, not that Toronto is, but having Koevermans and Johnson wreak havoc in the box could be quite advantageous; while a bit of physicality in the midfield from de Guzman and Dunfield can help break up the flow of their attack. Being CONCACAF, working the referees and picking up cards is a dangerous ploy, so caution must be taken in such ventures.

Both sides have key players at risk of missing the second leg with an additional booking - Koevermans, Miguel Aceval, and Richard Eckersley for Toronto; Sanchez, Mares, Peralta, and Baloy for Santos.

Sanchez is a fine and experienced keeper, but he likes to get involved in the play and the chatter. He may be caught out of position on occasion, the application of pressure would be wise, plus should he pick up a booking and miss the second leg, it could only be helpful.

Should Baloy get the start he can lose his head a bit and get overly physical - he absolutely decked Seattle's Estrada in frustration after he skipped past his fellow defender, picking up a card for his troubles.

Toronto's full-backs will need to be much more disciplined than they were against Seattle and San Jose. Getting caught up pitch will expose their soft centre, leading to goals.

The Warriors... Come out and play.

Points of Interest

Hercules Gomez has repeatedly made it a promise to avenge Toronto's defeat of his boyhood club - the Los Angeles Galaxy, thereby ruining his potential homecoming dream semifinal. Hercules was born in LA and grew up in Las Vegas before spending several seasons with the Galaxy as he began his professional career. Well, the US international has only scored eight goals in his last six games, what can he do to TFC?

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee

Our immense thanks to Eben Lehman of SB Nation's FMF State of Mind for his assistance on the details and finer points of the side; could not have completed this preview without him.

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