Four days after falling apart against the San Jose Earthquakes, Toronto FC has a chance to redeem itself.
But it won’t be easy changing TFC’s fortunes Wednesday night as the struggling MLS side plays host to Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final.
Toronto has been woefully wobbly of late. The preseason high of eliminating the MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the quarter-finals has been extinguished by worrying league results.
After losses of 3-1 in Seattle and 3-0 in Saturday’s home opener against San Jose, goalkeeper Milos Kocic says it’s time to reboot.
“San Jose was a big wake-up for us,” said Kocic, who was clearly steamed after the Earthquakes debacle.
“I want to get out on the field and show that we are worth more than what we showed against San Jose,” he added.
He isn’t the only one relishing the opportunity to author a different outcome.
“That’s football, you always have a second chance,” said an optimistic assistant coach Bob de Klerk.
The other semi-final also opens Wednesday with defending champion Monterrey play host to Pumas in an all-Mexican clash.
Mexican teams have dominated the CONCACAF Champions League since the format was revamped in 2008-09. Mexican sides won it the first three years and only one MLS team (Real Salt Lake) has made it to the final.
Twelve of the past 16 semi-finalists have been Mexican.
Part of the reason is the quality of top Mexican sides. Another is that the playoffs fall when Mexican clubs are well into their season, compared to MLS sides that are just starting their campaign.
Toronto has already made Canadian club history by progressing this far in the club championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean.
For a club that has failed to make the MLS playoffs in its first five seasons (Toronto’s career MLS record is 40-69-47), this current tournament run has offered a rare chance to shine.
Toronto will have to steady the ship against a high-scoring side that currently tops the Mexican league with an 8-2-2 record and has won four in a row.
“They’re a very good team,” de Klerk said. “If you watched our [CONCACAF Champions League group stage]game against Pumas in Mexico, we had a difficult time over there – a very difficult match.
“And they’re are the highest in the Mexico league, higher than Pumas so that says enough.”
Pumas, which blanked Toronto 4-0 in Mexico and tied 1-1 at BMO Field, currently stands 14th in the Mexican standings – 15 points behind Santos Laguna.
One storyline is worrying – Santos can score goals and Toronto is having problems stopping them.
The Mexican side led the competition in scoring in group play and overall has scored 23 goals in eight games. It stands second in scoring in Mexican league play with 22 goals in 12 games.
Toronto will be looking to avoid the kind of slow start it exhibited Saturday.
“It’s very important for all of us to start from Minute One, not to give away easy stuff around the field,” Kocic said pointedly. “And fight for every 50-50 ball and be tough on the Mexican team. Don’t let them play their game.”
A good result at home is imperative if Toronto is to have some breathing room in the second leg April 4 in Torreon.
“It’s going to be a tough place to go,” said defender Richard Eckersley. “So this game is massive [Wednesday]”
An ideal result would be a shutout win, which may be asking for a lot. Toronto hasn’t had a shutout in its past 10 league games.
With backup keeper Stefan Frei sidelined with a broken leg, Toronto elected to play it safe Tuesday by keeping Kocic out of a training game. Brian Rowe, one of the league’s designated emergency ’keepers, and academy goalie Quillan Roberts played instead.
Kocic trained with the goalies before the game and then went in, explaining later that his leg was a little tired from kicking during the windy San Jose game.
During Tuesday’s training, de Klerk fielded a backline of Eckersley, Ty Harden, Miguel Aceval and Ashtone Morgan behind holding midfielders Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield. New signing Efrain Burgos Jr. played behind an attacking trio of Johnson, Danny Koevermans and Nick Soolsma.
De Klerk attributed the recent defensive lapses to players giving too much space and too much time.
Like manager Aron Winter, who was absent Tuesday to attend what was called a routine MLSE board meeting, the assistant coach also pointed to the absence of captain Torsten Frings.
The former German international, currently rehabbing a hamstring strain, has been the glue in the Toronto backline when healthy.
The winner of the CONCACAF Champions League earns bragging rights and a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup. It’s a long soccer journey that started last year with Toronto winning the Canadian championship, then surviving the pool stage and quarter-finals.