Toronto FC the last MLS team standing in CCL

Milos Kocic: Robbed Robbie Keane late in the match

If, last July, someone was to predict that Toronto FC would be the last MLS team standing in the CONCACAF Champions League, they’d have been offered some pretty sweet odds.

But, there it is — after TFC played a cagey road game Wednesday in front of a smattering of Los Angeles soccer loyalists at the Home Depot Center, the Reds are the only team to qualify for the CCL’s final four. A second half goal from Nick Soolsma, combined with sterling performances from forward Ryan Johnson and goalkeeper Milos Kocic, gave the Reds a 2-1 win over the Galaxy in the second leg of their CCL quarterfinal, and a 4-3 triumph on aggregate.

The Reds will now face Herculez Gomez and Santos Laguna in the semifinal. And it won’t be easy. The Mexican powerhouse smashed six past the Seattle Sounders Wednesday.

Of course, Santos Laguna is the very same team that broke hearts in Montreal back in 2009, losing to the Montreal Impact 2-0 at Olympic Stadium in a CCL quarter-final, before roaring back to score two stoppage-time goals in the second leg to shock the then-USL side. So, Santos Laguna has a history when it comes to playing big games against Canadian clubs, and TFC will go in as the heavy underdog.

But, no doubt, Reds fans won’t care about the odds. After all,through this competition, they have seen their club go on the road for two must-win games. And in both Dallas and Los Angeles, coach Aron Winter got his formation just right — and the Reds came up with the two biggest performances in team history.

Toronto FC was happy to play what was a cagey first half. With the score 2-2 after the first leg, Winter recognized that it was more important to frustrate the Galaxy — to not allow Los Angeles to get an early goal — than it was for TFC to score one itself.

As well, the crowd didn’t offer the Galaxy much of a boost. Because of its agreement with the local university on which the HDC sits, attendance is capped at 7,500 on school nights. But the cap didn’t matter — because the crowd looked to be much lower than that number. The school didn’t need to cap attendance — apathy did the job just fine.

Considering that TFC jammed the Rogers Centre just the week before, you’d have to think CONCACAF officials are jumping for joy that Toronto is advancing, as it means more interest, more ticket sales and a venue that looks a heck of a lot better on TV.

With Los Angeles holding two road goals going into the second leg, TFC’s best hope of advancing was going to ride on a 1-0 smash-and-grab. And to get that kind of result, the Reds needed to frustrate the home side and take advantage of one of the few chances they’d get. So, logically, the Reds came into the game in a very defensive posture.

Think back to 1989, the famed English championship decider at Anfield. Arsenal needed to beat Liverpool by two in order to snatch the title away. So, what did Arsenal manager George Graham do? He started five defenders, recognizing that it was more important for the Gunners to hang in the game than try to trade chances with Liverpool early. The strategy worked; Arsenal got the famous Michael Thomas goal late in the match to get the 2-0 win.

As Torsten Frings helped out the backline, once again playing the sweeper role in a 3-4-3.

Kocic came in for Stefan Frei, who made some good saves in the first leg but misplayed a first-half David Beckham corner that nearly led to a goal, and couldn’t hold a cross that led to Mike Magee’s marker.

Midfielder Julian de Guzman and forward Soolsma, both suspended for the first leg, drew back in.

TFC tried to play a high defensive line, with Frings mopping up. The Reds didn’t push forward, but tried to squeeze the Galaxy’s space in the middle of the park. So, the Galaxy needed to float balls over the back line and hope for strikers Mike Magee and Robbie Keane to time their runs just right.

In the 17th minute, Magee got behind the line, but the ball bounced awkwardly inthe area — and Kocic came out smartly. By the time Magee could settle to shoot, Kocic had cut down the angle.

Ten minutes later, on a similar ball lofted over the backline, Magee chipped the ball over Kocic and into the TFC goal — but the offside flag was up. Replays show that the gap — if there was one — between Magee and last-man-back Richard Eckersley was razor-thin.

TFC didn’t generate anything close to a dangerous chance until the 34th minute — and then caught the Galaxy with a cruel sucker punch. Rookie centre back Tommy Meyer was victimized, as Soolsma floated in a perfect cross to the back post for Johnson to head home. Meyer didn’t turn to see Soolsma’s cross, and the ball floated over his shoulder towards a waiting Johnson.

Of course, Meyer was playing because reigning defender of the year Omar Gonzalez is out long term with a knee injury suffered while he was on a training stint in Europe.

At halftime, Los Angeles had the edge in possession and shots, but TFC held the advantage.

Kocic Comes Up Big
But, Kocic came up big early in the second half, stopping Robbie Keane after a ball lofted into the Toronto area from the foot of David Beckham was headed by Keane into Magee’s path. Kocic read the play and smothered the angle. At the time, Terry Dunfield, who had come in as a halftime sub to bolster the midfield, was off changing his shirt.

But Kocic could do nothing about the equalizer, where the lack of footspeed from centre backs Miguel Aceval and Ty Harden was sadly on display. Aceval could not catch Landon Donovan, who streaked down the right channel, then squared a ball for Keane. Harden, a step behind, had to lay out to block the pass, and the ball went off him and behind Kocic.

But, with the Galaxy once again holding the advantage, TFC’s players enjoyed their best spell of the game. And, it was the rookie, Meyer, who was burned again in the 67th minute. Johnson, going down the left side, was able to slip around Meyer at the touch line, then delivered a low cross for Soolsma to smash home.

The Galaxy mounted the pressure, and TFC sub Luis Silva’s attempt to salt the game away went just wide of the post. And it set the stage for Kocic to prove to Winter that he, not Frei, should have No. 1 on his back. In the 73rd minute, Keane was sent into the box, and was so in the clear that he had time to slow down, to hesitate. He was waiting for Kocic to make the first move, but the keeper stood his ground, and swatted Keane’s effort away.

It was a massive effort. TFC got the breaks. It got a scheduling gift when it got the weekend off while the Galaxy, filled with 30-somethings in its lineup, had to play three times in just over a week. But, with 48,000 fans at Rogers Centre, while the Galaxy drew a crowd that was NASL-like in size, you have to figure that the correct set of fans was rewarded.

And you have to think, can TFC resist not going back to Rogers Centre? Or does a blustery wind blowing off Lake Ontario at BMO Field offer too much of a home advantage over Santos Laguna?

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.