Toronto FC players enjoyed a relaxed practice Monday, the sound of laughter echoing around BMO Field.
On Tuesday, however, the MLS team wakes up with a target on its back as it travels to Torreon, Mexico, for the second leg of its CONCACAF Champions League semifinal with Santos Laguna.
Toronto FC manager Aron Winter expects his squad to hear it in Mexico on and off the pitch, including at the team hotel in advance of Wednesday's game.
“That's normal in those countries,” said Winter, who equates a game in the cauldron of Mexico to playing in front of rabid fans in Turkey. “I think that it's going to start the moment we land in Torreon.”
“You can expect everything,” he added. “That happens in those countries and you can't change it. It's a pity that you can't change it but they're going to try everything.”
There is bad blood between the two teams in the wake of last Wednesday's 1-1 tie at BMO Field. Santos had two players sent off after defender Richard Eckersley's leg was raked by Mexican studs and Ashtone Morgan was head-butted.
The head-butt precipitated a post-match melee on the field, with TFC players relating afterwards that the Mexicans told them in the tunnel as they walked off to expect a war in the rematch.
“Other words too than I don't really want to repeat,” said Jamaican international striker Ryan Johnson.
“They're not joking around when they say it,” he added. “It's heat of the moment but it's heat of the moment that they're making a promise that that's how it's going to be when we're down there. I believe it 100 per cent. So we've got to match it.”
Tom Anselmi, COO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, says the club has consulted with CONCACAF, MLS, the Canadian Soccer Association “and others” in planning the short trip to Mexico.
Winter's message to his team going into the game is “Expect everything but focus on football,” according to forward Nick Soolsma.
With Santos holding an away goal, Toronto will have to win or play to a higher-scoring tie to advance to the final of the club championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean. A 1-1 tie would force extra time and possibly penalty kicks.
The lone MLS side in the final four, Toronto has already made Canadian soccer history by advancing this far.
But surviving an elite Mexican team like Santos is a big ask for a Toronto team that is 1-3-2 in league and CONCACAF Champions League play this season. On the MLS front, Winter's club is 0-3-0 and has not scored in 208 minutes.
But the manager was all smiles Monday, saying he had “a good feeling” about the trip south. Winter insists his team, while losing, is playing better and that goals will come.
The Mexicans already have plenty of reasons to smile. Santos (9-2-2) leads the Mexican standings and is unbeaten in seven games at home this season. A 3-1 win over Toluca on Sunday extended its league win streak to five games.
Santos showed its teeth at home in the quarter-final against the Seattle Sounders, pouring in four second-half goals to win 6-1 on the day and 7-3 on aggregate.
While Toronto has yet to register a point in the league, several players pointed to an improved performance in Saturday's 1-0 loss to the visiting Columbus Crew.
“We brought the intensity that we needed to win the game,” said Johnson. “It's just that the final pass, the final ball in the net wasn't there. But I felt that we played a good game and we didn't give Columbus too many chances compared to what we gave other teams. We didn't make Milos (goalkeeper Milos Kocic) make too many big saves the other day.
“So if we keep that up, we'll be fine. But the games before, I wasn't happy (defensively) with at all. ”
Kocic, who still had to stop a penalty against Columbus, sees positives in the last two games.
“I felt I had much less work to do than I usually have. And that's pretty good to see,” he said. “I'm very glad the guys got it finally, how we should defend and then how we should move the ball.”
Both have suffered in the absence of injured captain Torsten Frings.
Still, Kocic warns against giving the Mexicans space in midfield.
“Now defensively we look pretty good. If we keep that shape in Mexico, we shouldn't have any problems,” he added.
Both teams will be missing players Wednesday
Toronto will be without big striker Danny Koevermans, who picked up a second yellow last week, while Eric Avila and Logan Emory are cup-tied.
Johnson expected rookie Luis Silva to start up top in Koeverman's absence.
For what it's worth, Winter had a lengthy talk with Soolsma before practice Monday.
“We just talked about the last game, what went well, what went wrong,” Soolsma explained. “Just about soccer. What we need also for Wednesday, what he expects from me.”
Winter, a master of politely saying little, was offering no clues. Asked about his attacking options in Koevermans' absence, he smiled and said “a lot.”
Santos' Carlos Darwin Quintero and Osmar Mares will miss the game in the wake of last week's red cards. But Santos will get captain-midfielder Juan Pablo Rodriguez back and could field forward Oribe Peralta, who started on the bench last week.
Whatever happens, it will be hot in Mexico ahead of the evening kickoff. The forecast high for Wednesday in Torreon is 32.
Torreon is located in central Mexico, some 800 kilometres northwest of Mexico City. Its population is more than 600,000.
“They have a nice stadium, nice big pitch,” Johson said. “So it's going to be a professional atmosphere, but it's going to be a hostile atmosphere.”
Pumas, down 3-0 after the first leg, hosts defending champion and fellow Mexican side Monterrey in the other semifinal Wednesday.
Notes — Thanks to his stint with the Canadian under-23 team, Toronto FC midfielder Matt Stinson's recent travel schedule has included Toronto, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, Kansas City and Toronto with stops in Mexico and Montreal later this week. ... Defender Miguel Aceval was back at practice Monday after nursing a sore hamstring. ... Toronto will leave Mexico directly for Montreal after the game to prepare for their game Saturday.