Now up against Santos Laguna, a team that is tied for top spot in the Mexican first division, to say the Reds are underdogs is a big understatement. The Mexican club easily dispatched Seattle Sounders 7-3 on aggregate in another quarter-final including a 6-1 win in Torreon after losing 2-1 at Seattle.
“Very good team I think,” said Assistant Coach Bob de Klerk who ran Tuesday’s practice. “If you watch our game against Pumas in Mexico (last year), we had a difficult time over there, very difficult match. And they’re in the league in Mexico and higher than Pumas. That says enough.”
As de Klerk alluded, Toronto is familiar with Mexican teams in the competition having played Cruz Azul in 2010 and Pumas UNAM last year. The team will draw from the experience as well as use scouting reports from its head scout in the U.S. and a team consultant in Mexico.
“Somebody for us was watching the game, we have some video and we contact Seattle of course because we played against them in MLS league and ask how they played and their experience against them,” said de Klerk. “They told us a little but we already saw on DVD and what we saw with our scouts over there.”
For TFC’s coaching staff the game plan will be simple – to limit space on all areas of the pitch.
“We try to make it very compact of course because we play open and wide like Seattle did in Mexico, they overrule you then,” added de Klerk.
“So you have to play compact when you don’t have the ball and we know that. And we have to sharp on the second ball.”
Beware of Herculez
Despite the scouting reports and game footage the players are still not quite sure what to expect from los Guerreros. For striker Ryan Johnson there is one player with whom he is familiar – American international Herculez Gomez. The striker is in fine form for Santos at the moment having scored eight goals in his past six matches.
“They have good finishers and they obviously have Herculez (Gomez) there,” said Johnson. “He’s a guy that I know a little bit so they have pure finishers. We just have to stop them from getting their rhythm.
“I think that is the biggest thing. If they get their rhythm it’s going to be hard to stop them. We just got to break up as many passes as we can and try to be the more physical team and I think if we can bring the physicality to the game, we’ll be OK.”
Stopping the Mexican team from scoring will be a tough task for the backline but defender Ashtone Morgan stressed the importance of defending as a team.
“We have to defend in numbers,” said Morgan. “We have to fight as a core, as a whole unit. One guy can’t do it himself. The whole team has to do it. We have to come together and defend for our lives.
“Their whole squad is technical players and really good players, but at the end of the day if we work hard I think we can get the job done.”
There is no question that TFC is in uncharted territory having reached this far in the competition. And to be the last MLS team standing is quite the accomplishment. The road from last April to now has been a tough one considering all the disappointment the team has faced in league play.
The players realize how close they are from playing for a championship and despite the injuries to Frings and keeper Stefan Frei as well as the odds stacked high against them, the team will fight to the very end.
“This is the semifinals,” said Johnson. “This is two games away from a final. I haven’t been in a final in a while. To be this close, this is why I said we came this far and we don’t want to throw it away. We’re very close to really achieving something big here.