The season has boiled down to this.
Tuesday night, BMO Field; we meet again.
There's really not all that much to say in that regard, the first two meetings earlier in the year have been discussed and analyzed, burned into the consciousness of the Toronto fans - and probably those of the players, on both sides.
Allow the mind to drift back to the start of the season. Back before the weight of losing streaks and managerial changes upset the course of this campaign.
If the series with Los Angeles captured the imagination of the masses, the one with Santos Laguna cemented the base. That fortitude may have wavered, as the heat and the losses ticked upwards, but Tuesday is a chance to refocus.
There is something more pure about these international matches. Perhaps it is the lack of sun-seekers in the stands, ludicrously early kick off times, or a reflection of the drudgery that can, at times, overtake an MLS match.
Much has changed since they last met, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A closer look at Santos Laguna - and perhaps the last remaining match of any import in Toronto FC's 2012 slog - is in order.
The newly-minted Liga MX kicked off its 2012 Apertura season back at the end of July; six matches in and the current Champions have struggled: wins, draws, and losses - two of each in pretty much that order.
Santos began their season with narrow one-goal victories at home to San Luis (seventeenth of eighteen) and away to Chivas (fourteenth). A home draw against Puebla (sixteenth) was followed an away loss to newly promoted Leon (fifth); a home loss to Pumas (twelfth) followed by an away draw to Pachuca (thirteenth).
Winless in the last four; hardly the form of champions.
Eleven matches remain before the playoffs - the restructured format has each team playing the others once, with the home and away designations switching between Apertura and Clausera campaigns - eight of those against teams that currently sit above them in the standings. It is far too early to count out a team with as much firepower as the side from Torreon possesses, but only the top eight clubs qualify for the post-season and the clock is ticking.
With that being said, much of the pre-match literature has made it clear that Santos will approach this contest intent on finishing it off.
A few heads were turned when Toronto dismantled CD Aguila so handily at the National Soccer Stadium; a four-goal advantage could be handy some proclaimed. But then Santos went and put up a five-goal, first half mauling of the Salvadorians in Mexico, humbling the outclassed Eagles and reminding those in Toronto who were rightly the favourites in the group.
Not much need be said about that match, there was very little to be learned - other than that Santos can score in bunches and enjoy doing so.
With the league table in need of attention, Los Albiverdes (the White and Greens) would like nothing more than to finish off this challenge now, taking full points in their first two matches, and securing the luxury of fielding less than full strength sides in the remaining games, secure in their ability in El Salvador and at home to Toronto.
Even a draw on the night may well be enough to secure the group - or at least shade the margins in their favour, as both Toronto and Santos must travel to Aguila before they meet again on October 24th in Mexico; the task at hand will be crystal clear when that day comes.
Mexican sides taking part in the CONCACAF Champions League have been excused from the reinstated Copa MX, meaning that a win in Toronto will allow near total focus to be placed on the league and rectifying a slow start.
A 1-1 draw in Toronto was followed by a 6-2 result in Torreon with Los Guerreros (The Warriors - their other nickname) advancing to the final, 7-3 on aggregate.
At the time it felt much closer than that and perhaps had Toronto taken advantage of a strong home performance it may have been.
As our guide in those previews, Eben Lehman of FMF State of Mind, pointed out in his Santos Laguna Apertura Preview, the management took the "if it ain't broke" approach to the offseason, losing none of their integral players to the whirlwind that is the Mexican transfer season and managing to add another dynamic attacking talent in former Morelia midfielder Edgar Gerardo Lugo.
All the names from last time will still be there.
The manager - Benjamin Galindo, the savvy Oswaldo Sanchez in goal, the hulking Felipe Baloy in defense, the fiery Carlos Darwin Quintero streaking up the pitch, Spanish midfielder Marc Crosas passing and moving, Olympian Oribe Peralta spear-heading it all, to name but a few, and of course, who could forget, the infamous Herculez Gomez.
Concerning to the Toronto faithful will be the subtractions from the home-side. The much lamented Julian de Guzman, who always did his best in the more relaxed tempo and timbre of the Champions League, Joao Plata, who too thrived under the more familiar conditions, and Nick Soolsma, the man who turned a single move into a career.
How Paul Mariner approaches the match may be the most interesting difference to observe. Aron Winter - have not written that name in a while - and his attacking 4-3-3 may have been one reason for Toronto's relative success in the CCL and an ultra-conservative approach could prove disastrous on the night.
The More Things Change...
After the draw was made, an argument could be put forward that playing a club like Santos Laguna in a group is much different than a home-and-away two-legged tie.
The pressure on Toronto heading into Torreon after such a strong performance at home ended only in a draw, against a side shorn of two of their starters, but holding the away-goal advantage, was immense and any game-plan awkward.
The need to open up and search for a goal benefitted the Mexican side, who knew their opponent must come out of any defensive shell and score to have any hope of progressing. Much though that tact helped Toronto - they play better in attack, it also hurt them, forcing the openings that Santos soon exploited after a close first half.
But the weakness exhibited by Aguila on the road - not that they should be discounted when it comes time for their home matches - has set the rest of this group up as a head-to-head shootout between Toronto and Santos.
Not exactly the kind of situation a club like Toronto will enjoy finding themselves in.
Much of the aforementioned league difficulties have involved the absences of important players.
Peralta was away in London with the victorious Olympic side, left-sided attacker Christian Suarez and left-back - a noted weak-point in the lineup - Osmar Mares have both missed the last two league matches; centre-back Aaron Galindo was absent from the weekend lineup, while deep-lying midfielder and vice captain Juan Pablo Rodriguez was held out as well, joining the fray for the final ten minutes or so. Gomez - Hey Herc! - was absent entirely, whether rested or out of form, he spent the match on the bench.
The squad was in Toronto as of Monday with recent reports indicating that Suarez and Mares will not be ready for the match; they had a leisurely training session in which players took to unnatural positions with Quintero and centre-back Rafael Figueroa in goal. Doubt that will happen come the match.
The projected lineup (4-2-3-1) is as follows: Club captain Oswaldo Sanchez in goal; from right to left - Jorge Ivan Estrada, Rafael Figueroa, Felipe Baloy, and Cesar Ibanez across the back; Marc Crosas and Rodolfo Salinas sitting with Darwin Quintero, Daniel Ludena, and Herculez Gomez across the top; and Oribe Peralta at the point.
Should Galindo be fit, expect him to replace Figueroa, same for Rodriguez and one of Crosas and Salinas - Santos returns home to face Tigres on the weekend and they could refrain from risking further injury to those not fully fit.
If the Mares and Suarez data is false, then both would likely man the left-flank, possibly pushing Gomez to the top and Peralta to the bench - as he was when Santos last came to Canada.
Peralta is a bit more of a target forward, whereas Gomez prefers to run off the shoulder of the last defender. Quintero is especially fleet-of-foot - and in fine form, scoring three goals in the league so far, and adding a hat-trick against Aguila - while each of the midfielder is capable of picking a pass, if given time and space.
Toronto's best chance of progression lies in a good result at home.
The physical presence of Eric Hassli - should he be fit enough to play - will cause defenders all sorts of trouble, though his style will likely not mesh well with CONCACAF refereeing - a Guatemalan official will take charge of the match.
Darren O'Dea too, must be wary of his first introduction to the wiles of the region. Paul Mariner, along with Richard Eckersley and Torsten Frings will likely have filled him in on the peculiarities, but often they have to be seen to be believed.
Keep an eye out for the much-anticipated clash between Quintero and Morgan, their first date ended in a red card to the Colombian and a welt on the head of the Canadian.
Of significant concern for the improving Toronto back-line will be their performance in Houston. Their ability to cut out set-pieces, to defend the aerial ball, will serve them well in league play, but they should not expect Santos to look to score by lumping balls into the heart of the box having allowed Toronto the time to get numbers back in position.
Santos will transition quickly; they will look for those balls over the top and diagonally into space; a sneaky run, a cutting pass, and a napping or overcommitted defender. Exactly what undid TFC against the Dynamo when Oscar Boniek Garcia side-stepped O'Dea and slid a perfect pass into the path of Will Bruin.
Rod Stewart became a de facto follower of the club recently when a Santos supporter handed him a kit with which to pose for a picture at a recent concert in Mexico City. A well-known supporter of Celtic, there must have been something about that Santos Laguna kit that struck a chord with him.
Oribe Peralta has reportedly garnered interest from Europe with his performance at the Olympics.