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Toronto FC v Santos Laguna. Winning in Mexico

A set piece gave TFC life in this tie and they will again be key down in Mexico.  Could Aceval be a hero?
A set piece gave TFC life in this tie and they will again be key down in Mexico. Could Aceval be a hero?

Toronto FC is down in Mexico getting ready for the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semi-final against Mexican club Santos Laguna. It should come as no surprise that once again the majority of the so called experts are giving TFC next to no chance of advancing from this tie despite the 1-1 draw in the first leg.

Just a quick look at some betting sites and you will find some really long odds on TFC coming away with anything in this game. On Bet365 just taking TFC for a draw is paying out at 5/1 and a TFC win gives you 12/1 odds. Now to be fair those odds are a fair bit better than what APOEL is getting for their match against Real Madrid (33/1 to win) but still shows that not many are taking the reds to triumph in Mexico.

That is probably rightly so. Santos is the better team, they are in much better league form, and history is on their side. When you consider that FC Dallas were the first MLS team to claim a win on Mexican soil against a Primera club when they beat Pumas UNAM in Mexico City last year you get the idea that winning down south is not exactly something MLS teams have a long history of doing.

Before this years CCL MLS teams had a record of 0-21-3 on Mexican soil. Even with Dallas winning over Pumas and then Seattle adding a win over Monterrey that record now stands at 2-25-3. So the MLS proved that FMF sides are not exactly unbeatable at home but as Seattle learned in their thumping at Santos it remains a very difficult task.

A look back at how TFC has done in Mexico is not really a source of anything that would suggest the odds are wrong. Last time the Reds were down in Mexico they were basically run off the field in Mexico with a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Pumas. After that result it looked like the red's Champions League dreams would be coming to an end but ever since they have been defying the odds. Toronto has had two home draws against Mexican sides since then as they held Pumas to a 1-1 scoreline and then that memorable 1-1 draw a week ago against Santos.

The biggest source of hope for Toronto FC has to come from the 2010 season when TFC had a pair of very memorable games against Cruz Azul. In August of that year Cruz Azul came to BMO field and were beaten by the home team that got goals from Martin Šarić and Mista (high points for both at TFC) in a 2-1 win. Fast forward to late September and Toronto makes the dreaded trip down to Mexico but instead of suffering the expected beating they were able to come home with a 0-0 draw and a boat load of yellow cards. Even with 4 points against Cruz Azul TFC failed to advance from the group as their 8 points left them behind Real Salt Lake and the Mexican Club.

So in Mexico Toronto has a record of 0-1-1 which is a very limited sample but they have shown in the past that they can find ways to compete in Mexico even if that was lacking against Pumas. They have also shown a knack for getting points against Mexican sides with an overall record against them in the CCL of 1-1-3.

When you look at that record and how Toronto FC has performed in the CCL so far is the idea that they could snatch a draw or win in this game really that absurd? A 2-2 draw would see TFC advance without having to get a win or worry about going to extra time and penalties. That result is paying out at a massive 25/1 which is the same odds you are looking at if you pick TFC to win 1-0. Neither result seems all that impossible but I guess if you are a betting type there is always money to be made on the underdog.

The good news for TFC fans is that the club has been defying the odds this entire champions league run. The odds of them getting that draw against Pumas were not good, nor of them winning against FC Dallas, they were then dismissed against the LA Galaxy before being given no chance in the home leg against Santos. So far TFC have thrived in the face of long odds so I for one would not have it any different this time around. Go ahead and write them off so called experts because they seem to love proving you wrong.

What does Toronto FC have to do though if they want to come away from Mexico with anything? Not all that much different than what they did to get the result at BMO would be the answer. The big difference is the fact that they have to resist being caught up in the fact that they are playing in Mexico and will likely be greeted by 20,000 or more very loud and very passionate fans. That is of course easier said than done but if TFC avoids getting caught up in the moment early and can play their game to start it will let them settle in and from there anything is possible.

The problem for Seattle was that they let Santos get that early goal and the whole game plan went out the window. A second quick goal and all of a sudden Seattle had to open themselves up and press forward to try and salvage the match. Once that took place it was basically a foregone conclusion how it would end up as Santos loves to tear teams apart on the counter attack.

Toronto needs to avoid that and remember that the game is 90 minutes long so that 1 goal they need can come at any point in the match. There is no need to start pressing men forward early and risk giving Santos that little bit of space they need to make you pay.

It really all comes down to being smart for TFC in this game as anything can happen when you playing in Mexico. It is very possible that the play acting could be on another level in this game so Toronto needs to resist being sucked into that game and avoid needless cards. The good news is that CONCACAF has placed Jose Pineda in charge of the match and he is one of the top quality refs in the region (yes, I realize that is not saying much with such a low standard). It will be an all Honduran crew for the match which should please Santos' head coach who was not a fan of the American ref last week.

If TFC avoids the early goal and can keep the cards to a limit they may very well force Santos to start making sloppy mistakes again. If they start looking like they did at BMO then the game will be there for Toronto to take when the chances do arise. Being smart on their own counters and taking advantage of any attacking set pieces will be crucial in this game which will require a major improvement on the standards of corners from recent games.

The task at hand is a difficult one but it is by no means impossible. This is once again the biggest game in Toronto FC history and is probably the toughest task in that history but if you don't like defying the odds and the underdog then you don't really like sports.