TFC and Santos Laguna trade goals… and punches

Carlos Darwin Quintero, the hero of Santos Laguna's 2009 triumph over the Montreal Impact, was sent off Wednesday.

An increasingly chippy game boiled over at the end of Toronto FC’s 1-1 draw with Santos Laguna on Wednesday night at BMO Field, promising an even more heated match in next week’s return leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal tie.

As the final whistle blew, an altercation between Reds defender Ashtone Morgan and Santos striker Darwin Quintero led to a full-on scrum between the two teams.  Both benches cleared and, while no further blows were thrown, both sides left knowing that the final score would be settled next Wednesday.

“They already warned us that it’s going to be a war over there and we know that ourselves,” said TFC captain Julian de Guzman.  “We’ve already had that experience playing at Cruz Azul and Pumas.  We know what type of atmosphere it’s going to be over there and now we’ve sparked up some more fire after this game for these guys.  We’re ready for it, we’re looking forward to it and the guys are prepared.”

The fight was sparked when Quintero headbutted Morgan well after the two men had completed a challenge for the ball.  After the game, Morgan sported a welt above his left eyebrow as he spoke to reporters. 

“I turned around, we were looking at each other, and boom… I was stunned by it and I went down after,” Morgan said.  “It was a traumatic ending… It shows how much both teams want it and the intensity of the game.”

Of course, Laguna’s account of the incident differed greatly.  Striker Herculez Gomez claimed Morgan threw the first punch, while head coach Benjamin Galindo said TFC’s Miguel Aceval came off the bench to throw a punch at a Guerreros player during the scrum.

The end result, however, was that Quintero — who scored both stoppage-time goals as Santos Laguna roared back to beat the Montreal Impact in a 2009 quarter-final tie — received a red card, a decision that Galindo naturally argued against, even going so far as to say he didn’t like how an American crew of officials were assigned a game involving “Americans.”

“I wish the ref would’ve been more supportive of both teams.  I hope it’s improved for next time,” Galindo said via a translator.  “The expulsion for Quintero came first, then (Aceval) struck one of my players.  The expulsion was given to the wrong player, it should’ve been given to Canada’s player.”

The wild ending detracted from what was a very solid performance from Toronto FC.  Facing top-flight competition and coming off of back-to-back losses in league play, the Reds largely shut down the Laguna attack and generated a number of good offensive chances.

“A draw is not a bad result but we deserved more.  If you watched the whole game, the opportunities that we had, we could’ve had two goals,” said TFC head coach Aron Winter.  “They’ve got a good team.  Today they didn’t show it… I think we’ve done a great job, played well and we haven’t given them the opportunity to play.  They had a lot of difficulties playing against us.”

It was a back-and-forth first half, as Toronto were the better side in the first 10 minutes, and then Santos Laguna controlled the next portion of the game, with the highlight being a jumping save from TFC goalkeeper Milos Kocic in the 19th minute.

As on Saturday against San Jose, TFC was having trouble defending the long ball.  Passes were still getting through, though in this game, the man-on-man defending in their end was greatly improved.  Perhaps as a reaction to this tight defending, several Laguna players engaged in a bit of “simulation” to try to curry favour from the referees, to little effect.

Los Guerreros still broke through the opening goal, however, thanks to the red-hot Gomez in the 31st minute.  The forward took a pass on the right side and buried it just inside the left post.  It was the ninth goal in the last 11 games in all competitions for Gomez, the U.S. international and former MLS veteran.

The deficit didn’t discourage TFC, however, as the Reds kept pressuring Santos.  Striker Danny Koevermans had a tremendous chance in the 35th minute, deflecting a ball off of Santos ‘keeper Oswaldo Sanchez, but no Toronto player was in position to convert the deflection before a Laguna defender cleared the ball away.

A foul on Ryan Johnson set up a free kick in the 37th minute, and that’s when the Reds equalized.  Aceval lined up from 30 yards and drilled a strike directly into the left side of the net.  It was the centre back’s first goal as a member of Toronto FC and his first since May 8, 2011 as a member of Universidad de Concepcion.

The play was not all positive for TFC, however.  Koevermans was booked for kicking the ball before the play, and due to yellow card accumulation, the forward will now be suspended for the return leg in Torreon.

Despite playing into a stiff wind in the second half, the Reds kept up the pressure and had a number of quality opportunities for the go-ahead goal.  The closest call came off the foot of Johnson, who took a perfect cross from de Guzman and got a touch that Sanchez just barely deflected with his hand.  The ball rolled along the ground just inches wide of the far post, a painful near-miss for Johnson, already the hero of TFC’s quarter-final win over the L.A. Galaxy.

The Reds got a further bonus in the 77th minute when Laguna defender Osmar Mares received a red card for a flagrant tackle on Toronto’s Richard Eckersley.  Mares not only was ejected, he also seemed to get the worst of the play, with Eckersley’s boot sliding right into his groin area.  TFC didn’t do much with the 11-on-10 advantage, as Santos fell back and concentrated on defending to keep the score level.

The final suspension tally heading into Wednesday is Mares and Quintero out for Santos, while Koevermans won’t be able to play for Toronto.  Another question mark is Aceval, who left the game in the 49th minute with what Winter described as a “little problem” that the club will know more about once the defender is properly examined.  Winter said he removed Aceval for precautionary reasons, a canny move given how he is essentially their only reliable centre back.

TFC plays Columbus on Saturday and then faces the latest “biggest game in franchise history” as the team’s Cinderella CCL run will take it to Estadio Corona.  As stunning as Toronto’s win over the Galaxy in Los Angeles was, beating Los Guerreros in Torreon would even an even larger upset.  Santos Laguna has a 9-2-4 home record in league play this season and is a perfect 5-0 in Champions League action on its home pitch, outscoring opponents by a 20-4 margin in those five games.

Without both of their Designated Players (Koevermans and the injured Torsten Frings), can the Reds once again shock the world?  While the Morgan/Quintero incident may mean TFC will face an even more hostile reception than usual in Torreon, the team’s performance on Wednesday gave it confidence that they can play without Frings, and hold its own against one of Mexico’s finest teams.  Toronto is the heavy underdog going on the road, playing for its CCL life while at a goal-tiebreaker disadvantage…but then again, we’ve seen this scenario before.

“It’s going to be a tough match going down there to Santos but it’s never impossible,” de Guzman said.  “We proved that already going into Dallas and L.A. on the road and I don’t see why we can’t give them a good run down there.”

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About Mark Polishuk

Mark Polishuk is a writer and editor from London, Ontario. He covered Toronto FC's first three seasons for Major League Soccer's official website, also covering such BMO Field events as Canada's World Cup qualifying match with Jamaica in 2008 and the 2008 MLS All-Star Game. Mark is also a stats stringer for MLB.com and is part of the MLBTradeRumors.com writing team.