|Toronto FC's Julian De Guzman (right) heads the ball with Club Santos Laguna's Rodolfo Salinas in the first half of Wednesday's CONCACAF match at BMO Field in Toronto. (REUTERS)
TORONTO - Fitted with the armband and needing a big performance, Julian de Guzman fought throughout Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal.
“(Santos) already warned us that it’s going to be a war (down) there,” he said, moments after a surprising 1-1 finish with Santos Laguna — a battle de Guzman’s midfield must win a second time if TFC is to exit Mexico with a result.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he continued. “This is what a semifinal should be like.”
And what Toronto fans have expected de Guzman to be like since 2009.
In a match filled with quality performances, the Canadian’s contributions were simplistic, but crucial on Wednesday — the kind of impact managers expect of high-priced holding players.
Whether it was releasing pressure through quick combinations or breaking up Santos Laguna’s talented middle third, along with partner Terry Dunfield, the Canadian outplayed his Mexican counterparts for long stretches.
While the city’s soccer journos routinely rip into one of Major League Soccer’s most expensive players, they rarely give de Guzman the prominence he deserves when he puts in a massive performance.
“If we play like this, like a team, then we are playing very well,” head coach Aron Winter said. “That’s the big difference.”
To take it a step further, the Reds fed off their captain’s energy this week — a demonstration that, for one night, had everyone back on de Guzman’s side.
STIRRING THE POT
After opening the scoring in Wednesday’s semifinal, Santos Laguna’s Herculez Gomez took to Twitter on Thursday to deny comments he made to a Spanish reporter following a bench-clearing scuffle that ended the match.
“If we score 6-1 to the best (MLS) team, can you imagine what we can do to Toronto,” Gomez warned in reference to his club’s dismantling of Seattle in the quarterfinals. The U.S. international used his online account to back track yesterday.
“(I) was never at a press conference,” Gomez replied, going on to say he was interested in hearing the recording — bulletin board material for TFC before the return leg.
“We know what type of atmosphere it’s going to be in Mexico,” de Guzman said. “We’ve kind of sparked up some more fire … It’s what you want.”
THIS AND THAT
Gomez has nine goals this month and has scored in seven straight matches for the Los Guerreros, who play at Toluca Sunday … Heading into the return leg, Wednesday’s result pushed TFC’s record against Mexican opposition to 1-1-3 … Monterrey blasted Pumas in the competition’s other semifinal Wednesday night. The Cup holders travel to Mexico City next week with a 3-0 lead … Despite American referee Ricardo Salazar doing well to control things, he made two big decisions that changed the first leg. Salazar missed a big penalty against Aaron Maund and his first sending off was puzzling … Santos has dropped just one of its last 16 home dates and hasn’t lost at home in this Champions League edition … The Reds travel to Torreon in the midst of a renaissance within MLS as the league’s clubs are 4-7-2 against Mexican opposition during the 2011-2012 Champions League. Dallas went to Pumas during group play and managed an historic 1-0 win in Mexico City. After that, the Sounders shutout Monterrey on the road. Toronto has an opportunity to cap an awakening that’s seeing MLS clubs compete against the best in the region.
While the San Jose shellacking issued Toronto a reality check, TFC can’t afford to drop more league points to Columbus Saturday.
Although the Santos result left many giddy, falling to the Crew — one of two clubs the Reds have never beaten at home — will put Toronto in an Eastern Conference hole they might not recover from.
Considered dead and buried by most, if de Guzman fails to replicate the commanding effort he impressed critics with Wednesday, supporters will be quick to dump on a player who has received more scrutiny than anyone in club history.