Joao Plata and Herculez Gomez traded goals in a wild first half before one singular moment doomed Toronto FC, and sent the Reds home from the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday night.
That moment – an ambitious tackle from TFC Designated Player and captain Julian de Guzman on Santos Laguna’s Cristian Suárez at the edge of the penalty box in the 55th minute – summed up the sobering truth for the Reds in Torreón, Mexico.
You can knock them down, but they’re going to get right back up.
Juan Pablo Rodríguez buried the ensuing penalty kick after de Guzman’s foul and the hosts added three more goals before the final whistle blew, ending TFC’s bid for a titanic upset with a 6-2 loss in the second leg of their semifinal series.
Rodríguez added another goal from the penalty spot in the 64th minute after a TFC handball on defender Miguel Aceval (right) and Oribe Peralta added a left-footed strike from inside the box just two minutes later for Santos, who advanced to the tournament final to play defending champion and fellow Mexican powerhouse Monterrey.
Daniel Ludueña added the final goal in second-half stoppage time for Santos.
The hosts’ offensive outburst in the second half was a harsh wake-up call for TFC, who went toe-to-toe with Santos in the first half and actually boasted a one-goal lead twice in the first 45 minutes. Plata was the catalyst for the surprising start, thanks to goals in the 15th and 43rd minutes that made it seem like TFC could pull off another stunning upset on the road in an unlikely tournament run.
But the US international Gomez kept up his incredible recent pace with two goals of his own, one in the 31st minute and another three minutes into first-half stoppage time, setting the tone for Santos’ surge in the second half. Gomez, who also scored in the teams’ 1-1 draw in the first leg of the series in Toronto last week, now has 11 goals in his last nine games overall, and six in the CCL tournament.
But Gomez shared the spotlight in the second half with Rodríguez, who coolly converted the 56th-minute penalty kick after de Guzman’s foul changed the course of the game.
The TFC veteran was caught catching up on the decisive play, and as Suárez streaked down the right side of the box de Guzman lunged. Either de Guzman caught a little too much of Suárez or the Santos midfielder made the most of the opportunity, but Suárez went flying. Head referee Jose Pineda pointed to the spot, and TFC’s night went downhill.
Pineda’s call was controversial enough to draw a passionate protest from de Guzman and an even more eventful one from TFC assistant Bob de Klerk, who was sent off for arguing the call.
Rodríguez promptly thumped the penalty kick past TFC goalkeeper Milos Kocic for the lead, and Santos didn’t let up. Aceval was whistled for a handball in the box when he stumbled on top of a Santos cross in the box and Rodriguez made TFC pay for that too, before Peralta capped the game with a cozy strike from inside the box in the 66th minute.
That all soured an otherwise brilliant night for Plata (far right), who was in the right place at the right time on the game’s first goal. After a Nick Soolsma corner kick found rookie Luis Silva and his shot was cleared off the line by Santos defender Jorge Estrada, Plata pounced on an contested header.
Plata was at it again in the 43rd, when he took a through ball from Soolsma and thumped a shot past Oswaldo Sánchez that put TFC up for the second time in the game.
But, as was the story that played out all night for TFC, it wasn’t done there. Gomez struck for his second goal of the night when he coolly deposited a right-footed shot from the right side of the box past Kocic in the final breath of the first half, and Santos carried that momentum into what became a decisive and ultimately damning second half for Toronto FC.