The final whistle of last week’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal match between Toronto and Santos Laguna didn’t just signal the end of the game, it may have also signaled the birth of a new rivalry. After playing the full 90 minutes, the match at Toronto's BMO Field was officially over, but animosities between the two teams were just heating up. An intense, physical, and hard-fought semifinal showdown ended in a 1-1 draw, and as the game came to a close tempers peaked. Carlos Darwin Quintero, possibly provoked, went after Toronto defender Ashtone Morgan. Predictably, the benches cleared with both teams coming together in the usual mass of pushing and shoving. Eventually separated, things continued to heat up in postgame comments. Players on both sides criticized the play of their opponents, and Santos striker Herculez Gomez laid down a gauntlet of a warning for the return leg.
"I don't know how much you guys know about our home crowd and the city we live in," Gomez said, "but it's probably not the smartest idea picking a dogfight."
As the series shifted from the Bank of Montreal confines back to the House of Corona for the second leg, it was most certainly "game on."
Back in Torreon the series was beginning to take on new importance. With a spot in the CCL final at stake there was already plenty on the line -- but now things were becoming a bit more personal. The 1-1 result, the physical play, the red cards, and the postgame words from Gomez and others all served as a call to rally around the local team. Santos fans were ready to defend their house and do whatever they could to help push the Guerreros into the final.
Local media attention increased. Players such as Marc Crosas implored the fans to pack the house for Wednesday's match. Ticket sales quickly picked up (aided by a price drop, along with a little help from Crosas and Gomez themselves). Toronto and Santos players continued to take shots at each other in interviews (Ryan Johnson: "You can expect anything. . .Elbows, late tackles, late kicks, guys stomping on your legs, things like that are going to happen"). The word "war" was tossed around by both teams without irony. A Toronto newspaper columnist threw a lazy, ignorance-soaked barb at the city of Torreon itself. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a game between two clubs with no real competitive history who are separated by over 2,000 miles had taken on the appearance of a ... rivalry?
With the heightened buildup, there’s no question that Wednesday’s match will feature a much more engaged crowd than we saw last month against Seattle. The deck was already stacked against Toronto, as Santos has been an exceptionally strong team at home this season. Undefeated at Estadio Corona in league play – and on a five game win streak – things don’t bode well for the visitors.
While a multi-goal draw would be enough to advance, Toronto has to come into Wednesday's match believing they can actually win. On the surface, though, a victory seems almost impossible. It's no secret that winning a CCL knockout match on Mexican soil is a feat that has never been accomplished by a team from the United States or Canada. Three years ago the Montreal Impact (then just a lowly USL side) came extremely close. A 4-1 aggregate lead over Santos in the second half of the second quarterfinal leg had the Impact well on their way to the next round. What should have been a joyous countdown to the semifinals instead turned into the Carlos Darwin Quintero Show in the blink of an eye. The Colombian striker knocked in two stoppage-time goals and Santos squeaked by with a shocking comeback victory.
The semifinal round is also as far as Santos has ever advanced in this competition. Win on Wednesday night and the team earns a spot in the CCL final, just one small step away from a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup. Monterrey – the defending champions – await as likely final round opponents. A matchup with the Rayados would add for a bit of extra redemption, as it was Monterrey who defeated Santos in the finals of the Apertura 2010 playoffs just over a year ago. The two northern Mexico cities have a long and combative history on the field, but for now all eyes remain on the newer rivalry.
And the new Toronto-Santos rivalry is really what the CCL competition is all about. Two clubs from two countries that don’t even share a border, representing two different leagues, brought together as highly unlikely foes. On Wednesday night fans of both teams should be rooting for another hard-fought, entertaining, and highly-competitive match between the two sides. One spot in the CCL finals is at stake, but also on the line are bragging rights in the opening chapter of what looks to be North America's newest – and unlikeliest – football rivalry.
Santos Laguna vs. Toronto FC can be seen Wednesday night at 8:00 pm eastern on Fox Soccer and Telefutura.