Well, here we are. Facing down the end of the season as a meaningful exercise other than merely a tryout for next season. Against Santos Laguna no less, a nice bit of symbolism that doesn't just remind you of the hope and giddiness with which it started, but puts you over it's knee and spanks you repeatedly with it. Win, and there's still a small amount of hope and something to play for, lose and it's effectively all over.
If it hadn't been such a depressing and soul crushing time in between the spring's semi final and tonight's game (5 months to the day we played the first leg. That's all. 5 months) I'd excitedly bust out the Chris Harrison-esque Most! Important! Game! Of! The! Season! schtick I so enjoyed last year, anticipatory of what might come next. As it is, there's just a sense of dread and foreboding at a long two months ahead.
But there's hope, for 3 reasons. Sure, 2 of them may or may not happen, and the other has no actual bearing on this game, but still, hope. First up, we have Santos Laguna, clearly the better side and pretty much guaranteed the win in Torreon if we go by what happened earlier this year. Hopefully they believe that and decide they can take it easy here, maybe throw out a bit of a B team, knowing that it'll probably be fine, and even if not they can just bring it in the home leg and they'll get through easily enough.
Secondly there's TFC. There's nothing to play for in the league, just a long audition for a place in the 2013 squad, so why not put everything into this game, and keep the season going for a few more weeks at least. Even if you just look at it as part of the audition, what better way to impress than by showing you can turn it on when it matters most?
Thirdly, we have historical precedent. All those 'WTF Where did that come from?' games we've seen from TFC in this competition. Preki beating Cruz Azul 2-1(even Mista scored!). The 0-0 in the return leg under Nick Dasovic. Aron Winter getting wins in Dallas and L.A. and draws at home against Tigres and Santos Laguna. Can Paul Mariner add his name to the list of those who briefly and puzzingly overacheived? Can he continue TFC's proud unbeaten home record against Mexican teams?
The fact that in Saturday's game Torsten Frings was rested, Eric Hassli wasn't asked to push through his back spasms issues and Ashtone Morgan was given only a 20 minute run out all suggest that he's planning to give it a good go, which I'm personally very happy about. I'd say that means we'll get at least one of my 3 hypothetical reasons to hope, but there's been some curiously flat performances from TFC recently so I'd be wary of guaranteeing anything.
The biggest factor probably is just how Santos Laguna approach the game as they have the quality of players, the skill and style to crush Toronto if they really go for it. Something best exemplified by the 2 games this year against Kansas City (we play them again on Saturday? oh good.) is that when put under pressure in possession, TFC will just get the ball as far away as possible, sacrificing keeping the ball for momentary relief, looking like a lower league english team as Kei Kamara so bluntly said after the last game. The game against Columbus showed however that that isn't necessarily TFC's plan A. The Crew were content to sit back a lot more and when given a bit of time, TFC were passing it around and putting together some decent possession play. Santos Laguna showed last year they're a clinical counter attacking team, so I wouldn't really be confident either way, it's very much pick your poison, but hopefully they do allow Toronto the time to play and build from the back, that way we just might have a chance. If they can force us to give them possession again and again, we're screwed.
As for the lineup we can expect, I'd say unless Hassli's back is causing him serious problems, we'll see the 3 players rested on Saturday back in the lineup, and that will more than likely be the only changes made.
Tweeting from training, John Molinaro suggested that the Freddy Hall experiment in goal will continue, getting an extended look at the Bermudian to figure out if he's good enough to be the backup next year, as it looks increasingly likely that Milos Kocic is on his way out. Mariner has obviously decided that Stefan Frei is his number one next year, and there's a good chance that Kocic will be looking for a substantial raise from the $44,000 he's more than earned this year. As harsh as it is on Kocic, and in my opinion it's very harsh, It doesn't make economic sense in a salary cap world to have too expensive of a backup goalie, so in a way it makes sense that Kocic may have to go. If that's the case it makes sense to give Hall some games to show if he can do the job or not, but in this game I really can't understand that. There's 8 meaningless MLS games to experiment with, this one actually matters. Don't hold it hostage to next season, play your best team, and in goal, that's Kocic. But Hall it is I guess.
Ashtone Morgan will obviously replace Logan Emory at Left Back, and I think we'll see the same 3 defenders in Jermey Hall on the right, with Richard Eckersley and Darrren O'Dea in the middle, as I really don't think there's any of the natural Centre Backs that Mariner trusts more then Eckersley in the middle, which is a sad comment on their standing with him really.
In midfield Torsten Frings will be back, Terry 'Messier' Dunfield with him protecting the defence, but I really hope there's a change with the wide midfielders. With Reggie Lambe probably not back, it will more than likely be Andrew Wiedeman on the right again, with Quincy Amarikwa ready to use as a sub. On the left, I'm hoping Luis Silva gets dropped back from the forward role he's occupied recently to allow Ryan Johnson to reclaim his spot up there. It's not that Silva hasn't looked good up front, he has, and he looks a lot more of a natural finisher than Johnson does, but it's more that he's also played well in midfield and can still provide a goalscoring threat from there, whereas Johnson hasn't looked anywhere near as involved or effective in that midfield role recently.
Add Hassli in to all that, and well, it's still a vastly inferior team, but it's one with a chance if things go right on the night, if they play above themselves and Santos maybe takes them lightly. It's happened before, just 5 months ago, TFC came away with a result that made things difficult but kept their hopes alive. Get things wrong this time, and Rita Macneil can clamber aboard the capo stand and lead the 113 Bohemian Rhapsody singalong, as we'll have 2 long months of nothing really mattering until the season mercifully ends.