Toronto FC stepped onto the pitch as Major League Soccer’s last team remaining in the semi-final round of the CONCACAF Champions League, the tournament for clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean. They earned that right by upsetting the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy 4-3 on aggregate.
They are proudly the first team from Canada to progress this far into the tournament, and they were greeted by nearly 19,000 screaming fans, most of whom wore the team’s colors—the stands were a sea of red. The weather was perfectly fitted for the home team, as the rain and winds were not something the opponents from Mexico were used to.
They would leave the pitch with a man advantage, as Santos Laguna’s Oscar Mares received a red card in the 77th for a studs-up, two-footed challenge after his touch while attacking let him down. Yet with all this, the team limped into the match and had to fight for a draw at home against a very strong Santos Laguna squad.
After the two thrilling performances against the Galaxy, the team went on to drop their league and home openers to Seattle and San Jose, giving up three goals in each game. Throwing a bit of salt in the wounds were the losses to injury of their star captain Torsten Frings, as well as vice captain and goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
American international striker Herculez Gomez dealt Toronto their first blow, grabbing a crucial away goal and the game’s lead in the 30th minute. Carlos Quintero found space on the right side and sent a ball that beat Toronto’s defense, allowing Gomez to tuck it past goalkeeper Milos Kocic into the left side of the net.
Seven minutes later, Toronto’s Dutch striker Danny Koevermans was given a yellow card, meaning he would miss the away leg serving a suspension.
While Santos set up to defend a set piece, Koevermans tried to catch them off guard with a quick shot, which fell harmlessly into the hands of Santos’ keeper Oswaldo Sanchez. Evidently unaware that his team had asked for their ten yards, he was carded for not having waited for the referee’s whistle, and things looked to go from bad to worse.
But on the ensuing re-take, Koevermans stepped off the ball, still furious at the call, and defender Miguel Aceval took it, driving the ball low and inside the near post to tie the game. The goal will be listed as unassisted, but Terry Dunfield held the Santos wall in-check, allowing the ball to fly by it and out of the reach of Sanchez, who was guarding the far post.
Can Toronto FC get it done in Mexico next week?
From there, Toronto kept the pressure up, and the game’s best chance was theirs in the 64th minute, when Julian de Guzman’s perfect cross was redirected by striker Ryan Johnson. Only the extended forearm of Sanchez tipped the shot just wide of the net, keeping the game level. The Reds kept the pressure up until the end, but couldn’t take advantage of the extra man in the final 13 minutes, as the game became chippier and the teams became more heated.
In an ugly display at the end, Quintero head-butted Toronto defender Ashtone Morgan away from the ball as the final whistle blew. He was shown a red card, and walked over to Morgan, who lay on the ground, barking at him to get up. Benches cleared so quickly that Toronto coach Aron Winter couldn’t see or tell what happened. On the contrary, his counterpart, Benjamin Galindo, claims that Toronto defender Aceval left the bench to throw a punch.
All in all, Toronto managed to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after 12 Santos fouls and two red cards. They outshot Santos Laguna 14-10, earned more corner kicks 12-1, and showed no signs of being intimidated by the underdog label in the 1-1 draw,
Now the walking wounded must take an even bigger step, and get a result in Torreon, Mexico, on April 4. As if the roster wasn’t depleted before, they must play without their striker Koevermans, and their defender and lone goal scorer of the night, Aceval. They must say goodbye to the comforts of the Red Sea and walk into a Sea of Green.
They must get that critical away goal back, while limiting a team that scores at will in its backyard. Yes, they’ll be underdogs yet again, if not more so. American Gomez for Santos summed it up best, as reported on Toronto's website: “If we score 6-1 against the best team in the MLS, (their last match against Seattle on Mexican soil), can you imagine what we can do to Toronto.”
But the Reds will have MLS in their corner, vying to become the 2nd MLS team to reach the finals in the last two years. They’ll have Canada in their corner, still looking for its first representative in the CONCACAF Champions League finals. They’ll want it for themselves, as they’ve never been this close and have already overcome so much.
And in a year in which Canada is going to the Olympics at the expense of the United States, maybe that’s all Toronto will need.