Santos Laguna are leading the title race down in Mexico and are viewed by many experts as being clear favorites to knock off Toronto FC in their CCL semi-final meeting. These are the same experts that all wrote off TFC in the last round though only to see the Reds defy the odds and knock off the LA Galaxy. So can we hope for the same sort of defiance tomorrow night at BMO? Well, on what is shaping up to be a cold March night the hosts might just have a chance to come away with something. The trip to Mexico is a different story but we can take some confidence in the fact that like most Mexican teams Santos does not seem to travel north all that well. We can look to their defeat in Seattle last round for inspiration or even back to when they visited Montreal in 2008 for some historical optimism.
So there you have some reasons for optimism. The negative comes from the fact that since knocking off LA in the CCL Toronto FC has lost Stefan Frei and Torsten Frings to injury and the small matter of getting beat down 3-0 by a less than impressive San Jose Earthquakes side on the weekend. In the past most fans would be writing this team off from the get go, and to be fair many are, but it seems that the clubs recent performances in big games at least give fans who have been paying attention a glimmer of hope. Our hopes may very well be left dashed by the end of the match but if you don't at least have some hope then there is no longer any point in even bothering to play the game.
The simple fact is that TFC are facing a massive challenge in Santos Laguna but if they can do all the little things right they might just be able to claim a surprise result in the home leg at least.We all know that Mexico is warm and that will actually play a factor in this match. Toronto has been abnormally warm of late but it seems that the weather heard TFC was playing games and decided to turn cold again just for the fans heading to BMO. On Wednesday night the temperature around game time will likely be only slightly higher than 5 degrees Celsius with a chance of rain. Those are not the kind of conditions that Mexican teams are going to thrive in which should give Toronto FC a better chance.
The problem is that TFC seemed to have a really hard time adjusting to similarly nasty conditions on the weekend. The cold temperature led to several players going down with knocks and the team looking fairly lifeless. Add in the wind and they started to look completely lost. If it is windy again and Toronto is forced to try and play the ball along the ground through the midfield they will be in for a very long night. Against San Jose the conditions made the long ball a lost cause but TFC stuck to it as Julian De Guzman and Terry Dunfiled had a terrible time trying to connect the back four to the front four. It left Toronto very stretched and playing in what was basically an ugly 4-2-4 formation. If they do that again against Santos it will be game over in no time.
Santos is a team that plays their best on the counter attack and what we saw against the Seattle Sounders and then the Earthquakes showed that Toronto FC is nowhere near their best when they are defending against the counter. Without Frings there to organize them there was a lot of just running back towards the goal rather than picking up the attackers. Santos will capitalize on that so if Toronto wants to even have a prayer they are going to have to get back in numbers and once they do get behind the ball they will have to be smart and well organized.
The reason that Toronto has conceded 6 goals in their first two MLS matches has nothing to do with any individuals in the squad as they have all made their share of costly mistakes so far. It would be unfair to single out Ty Harden, Miguel Aceval, or even Aaron Maund when the simple fact is that the team defence has not been nearly good enough. Stopping other teams on the counter has to start from the top and that has not been taking place. Opposition midfielders have had far too easy a time taking the ball from their defenders and bringing it up to dangerous positions without even being challenged. Toronto will need a big effort from whoever they have in the middle of the park to break up the transition and ensure Santos does not get those cheap chances on the counter.
That effort will start with De Guzman and Dunfield but they will need a lot of help from who ever is playing up top. Joao Plata, Ryan Johnson, Luis Silva, and Nick Soolsma will all likely have some role to play in this game and if Toronto FC is going to have any success they will need to contribute to the defending. The only one who will be allowed to focus almost solely on the attack is whoever ends up playing the CF position. If that is Danny Koevermans or Johnson they will be tasked with making any chances they get count but also with helping release pressure by controlling balls in the attack and holding up play so the team can press forward.
The best way for Toronto to get any sort of result in this game will be to follow the typical underdog script. That will mean the whole team getting involved in defending but more importantly if the chance arises to steal a goal on the counter or off a set piece they will have to make it count. A team like Santos is not likely to give Toronto many second chances so being clinical in all thirds of the game will be key.
This game may very well be decided on the drawing board though as Aaron Winter gives his players instructions going in to the match. If he has them set out to defend from the opening whistle and play smartly on the counter attack then they are in with a chance but if they try to go blow for blow well I would expect them to be on the ropes or even knocked out before half time.
It is looking like the lineup will be similar to what we saw on Saturday in shape at least with Winter likely to employ a 4-3-3 using the two holding midfielders in that very deep role. Where we could see some changes is in the personnel up front where I would expect to see Danny Koevermans return to the starting lineup and Reggie Lambe returning to the bench. The other possible change that we could see is Plata being dropped to the bench in favour of the less flashy but more reliable Soolsma. The other option would be to drop Silva to the bench, move Johnson to AM and have Plata and Soolsma on the wings. Either way, Winter will have to put out the group that will be most committed to improved team defense or all the attacking talent in the world won't matter.