It's nearly time for the much anticipated second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal clash between Club Santos Laguna and Toronto FC.
The first leg was explosive and surprising for those who equated TFC's league form with their regional play.
A war of contentious words was followed by retractions and distancing, but what remains is the most important match in Toronto FC's short history, for what seems like the umpteenth time in recent weeks.
The 1-1 draw in Toronto leaves the tie delicately balanced. Santos holds the advantage with their away goal, which in the event of a scoreless draw would see them progress.
This preview will be a little different from the previous ones, as the two sides met last week, for a more complete look, be sure to go back and have a look at both the Seattle Sounders preview, which focuses heavily on their two matches against Santos and the preview of the first leg.
Results on the Weekend
Both sides returned to league play on the weekend. Toronto FC falling at home to Columbus 0-1 and Santos going to Toluca and bringing home the three points with a 1-3 result.
Surely enough has been said about Toronto's match against their Trillium Cup rivals; but a closer examination of the Mexican side's win is warranted.
Oribe Peralta, who surprisingly spent the first sixty-two minutes on the bench in the first leg, opened the scoring in the 19th minute. In their usual dynamic counterattacking fashion, Carlos Darwin Quintero ran half the length of the pitch at the off-balance defense and skipped over a challenge before laying the ball out to the right flank for Christian Suarez, who then squared a ball across the goalmouth to an unmarked Peralta for an easy conversion over the diving keeper.
Suarez himself doubled the lead in the 33rd. The ball was moved from the left across the top of the box, to Quintero, who again found Suarez on the right. He drew the two defenders in before leaving them for dead - faking inside before moving out and firing a right-footed blast across the keeper into the far netting.
Toluca missed a chance to snatch one back when a penalty kick taken by Ivan Alonso was reported to have been saved as Oswaldo Sanchez guess correctly (No video found).
Quintero finished the contest shortly into the second half, picking up the ball at the top of the box, powering his way around his defender, and slamming a shot high to the short-side on the helpless keeper. A brilliant individual goal by the hot-headed Colombian - TFC will be grateful he will not be participating in the second leg.
Toluca did manage to spoil the clean sheet in the 65th, Diego De La Torre capitalizing on some Santos confusion in the box and pouncing on a rebound of a shot blocked by Felipe Baloy to blast his side's lone marker of the evening.
Any chance of a comeback was ended some ten minutes later when Diego Novaretti picked up two booking in the space of two minutes to reduce Toluca to ten men.
It could be of slight advantage that Toronto played their match early on Saturday, while Santos had to wait until Sunday for theirs. An extra twenty-four hours of rest could be decisive.
Suspensions to Quintero and left-back Osmar Mares will enforce at least two changes to the Santos lineup. There may well be more.
Expect their preferred 4-2-3-1. Vice-captain Juan Rodriguez is available, having served his suspension for yellow card accumulation and going the full ninety on the weekend; he should slot back in alongside Marc Crosas - who was removed from Sunday's match as the two in midfield.
The loss of Quintero opens up the possibility for Daniel Luduena's return from injury. The Argentine - who did not travel to Toronto for the first leg - featured for the U-20s in their 3-0 loss to Toluca on the weekend.
Should Luduena not make the starting eleven, Crosas could be moved forward into that attacking role with either Rodolfo Salinas - who replaced Crosas in the second half of their weekend match - or Carlos Morales - less-likely as he played the full ninety on the weekend taking his place alongside Rodriguez.
Herculez Gomez was rested on the weekend as a result of the knock that saw him substituted in the 69th minute of the first leg after he clashed with Toronto keeper Milos Kocic. He will be available and expects to play on Wednesday, most likely in his attacking role on the right.
Suarez will take up his regular position on the left, while Peralta should return to his role up top, with first leg surprise starter Carlos Ochoa returning to his substitute's role, as it was against Seattle.
Mares' suspension is of some concern for Santos; nominally their preferred starter - at least in recent CONCACAF matches - at a weak point in their lineup. He will most likely be replaced with Jose Antonio Olvera, who played at the weekend.
Should Felipe Baloy move into one of the centre-back slots alongside the perennial Aaron Galindo - as was expected in the first leg - Santiago Hoyos could move out to the left and at least shore up the defensive aspects of the position.
A theory only, but Baloy's non-inclusion in the first leg could have been to protect him for this match; he was - and is - carrying a yellow card and would have been at risk of missing the second leg with another.
Jorge Estrada, who missed out on the weekend and was substituted at half-time in the first leg for Cesar Ibanez, will most likely return to his right-back position, as he provides an impressive attacking force from that spot.
In summary, Santos will most likely line up with Oswaldo Sanchez in goal; from right to left Estrada, Galindo, Baloy, and Olvera across the back; Rodriguez and Crosas sitting in the midfield, with Gomez, Luduena, and Suarez in front; and Peralta up top.
Play It Out
Much of the talk pre-match has revolved around how dominant Santos has been at home, both in the league and in CONCACAF.
Their 6-1 demolition of Seattle in their second leg is not to be overlooked, but it should be remembered that the final three goals came in the last twenty-odd minutes of play, when Seattle seemed to be content to let the result slip away.
What is a major concern is that Santos' first two goals came in the first ten minutes, overturning the Sounders advantage from the first leg and giving the Mexican side the initiative so early in the match. Keeping Santos off the score-sheet early and perhaps applying a bit of pressure, or better yet snatching an early goal themselves - though that has its own perils - and letting them know they're in for a match, will be important to the mental aspect of this challenge.
Toronto needs to be up for this match from the off, the longer they can go without letting Santos pick up steam, the better the night will be for the Reds.
While losing Danny Koevermans to such a weak yellow card cannot be termed as anything other than unfortunate, it could prove advantageous in the end. What is lost in his ability to hold up play, provide an outlet, and occupy one or two centre-backs, is made up by having someone with some extra mobility in his stead.
The name of the game in Torreon is going to be pressure. What Danny can alleviate for TFC, another more dynamic player can apply to Santos. Extra legs on a night such as this could be the difference.
In the first leg, Toronto was punished the one time the backline was caught napping; Gomez came deep into the centre circle to touch a pass out to Estrada on the right. He then noticed Quintero who had drifted into space on the right touchline from his central position. Quintero spotted Gomez's run in between TFC centre-backs and picked him out with a wonderful curling ball in behind the line. Shades of a handball aside, Miguel Aceval was caught napping as Julian de Guzman attempted to track Gomez's movement from deep.
It was a sloppy moment; losing track of two of the most dangerous players on the pitch in Quintero and Gomez is a mistake that should not be made. It highlights one of the key dangers of this Santos side - that movement and interchangeability of attack that confuses defenses. Quintero drifts wide, as Gomez cuts in, Suarez switches flanks, Crosas moves forward. It is all very complex, TFC must keep it simple to find success, take your man, never leave a man unmarked, don't assume he's someone else's, and communicate.
That Toronto's goal came from a set-piece, as Aceval unleashed a left-footed blast through the wall, skipping it in front of Sanchez to level the affair, should surprise no one. Were it not for so many wasted corners that could barely beat the first man, Toronto surely would have had more.
Taking advantage of those opportunities will be paramount to the result. There will not be as many chances in the second leg and those that the team has must be used wisely.
They won twelve corners and flung some twenty-six open play crosses into the box in the first leg. They need to repeat that feat with some added finish. If there are to be goals, they may well look very similar to those scored by Luis Silva, Ryan Johnson, and Nick Soolsma against Los Angeles.
Though the attributed threats of a war awaiting the side in Mexico have been softened in the week since the first leg, Toronto will need to keep its head and be wary of retaliation. Santos became very frustrated in the first leg, whether by Toronto's tactics and physicality, by the vociferous crowd, or by the referee does not matter. If that same frustration begins to emerge in this match, it could benefit Toronto if they are able to keep a cool head.
No one likes to see scenes such as were witnessed at the end of the first leg, but that ramping up the pressure was to Toronto's advantage cannot be disputed.
With Mares out and left-back already a weak point, Soolsma and Richard Eckersley are going to be extremely important to Toronto's success. Soolsma's ability to buy time in possession with his trickery down that flank and deliver dangerous service into the box, will allow TFC to get men into the box on the end of those crosses, while also providing the relief outlet Toronto is missing in Koevermans.
Eckersley will have to be selective in when he gets forward, so as to not allow too much space behind him, while overlapping to overload that side and draw defenders towards the flank to open up the middle. Against Seattle, Santos became very compact in the centre of their defense clogging up the middle of the pitch, forcing Fredy Montero to find space out wide to the left, from which he created goals. Joao Plata and Ashtone Morgan will have to do the same down the opposite flank, both to provide offense and limit Estrada's ability to get forward and join the attack - something that opened the flood gates against the Sounders.
Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield will have to be as immense as they were in the first leg and limit their mistakes. Johnson and Plata have to show the form that got TFC this far in the tournament already, while Silva must be the player seen against Los Angeles and not the one against Columbus on the weekend. Kocic will be called upon to come up big again, as he did in plucking Gomez's attempt at a second out of the air.
Gamesmanship aside, expect Santos to be much more robust at home. There was plenty of criticism from both sides of the American referee Ricardo Salazar in the first leg. For what it's worth, he called a very difficult match pretty evenly; not giving Santos the fouls they wanted, while limiting Toronto's ability to impress their physicality. He was a little slow to bring out the yellow cards at the beginning and stamp his authority on the match, but he would have been criticized further if he had.
The Honduran crew assigned to Wednesday night's return leg, led by Jose Pineda, will have a difficult match ahead of them. Pineda's last CONCACAF Champions League match featured Los Angeles, as the Galaxy went down 2-1 to Monarcas Morelia back in September to a cruel phantom offside call that robbed Robbie Keane of a second goal, only to fall in stoppage time to a Miguel Sabah header from a 92nd minute corner.
Though it looks a monumental task to overcome history and Santos's superb home form, Toronto FC has already thrice overcome such so-called impossibilities. First it was a 0-3 win in Dallas to move on from the group stage. Then it was the 1-2 win in Los Angeles to make up for the collapse at the SkyDome. Most recently it was keeping up with Santos in the first leg.
Go back to last summer; would anyone have predicted the club would be where it now finds itself? Forget the shoddy form in the league, this is a cup competition; anything can happen.
Points of Interest
In an effort to spur on the home side both Herculez Gomez and Marc Crosas splashed some cash buying one hundred tickets each, which they then handed out to fans. Attendance in Mexico for the CONCACAF Champions League has been less than stellar; perhaps the bad-blood from the first leg and this spot of promotion from Gomez and Crosas will have enticed a few more out. Often the match will start out with a particularly sparse crowd, only to increase in number until the final whistle.
Each keeper - Santos' Oswaldo Sanchez and Toronto's Milos Kocic - faced a penalty kick on the weekend, and both were saved; of grave portent should the match end in spot kicks from twelve paces.