Returning to the Champions League for the fourth consecutive time are Canadian champions Toronto FC. In the past edition, the Reds famously knocked out the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals, but ultimately fell to a superior Santos Laguna side in the semis.
Toronto will have an immediate shot at revenge, however, facing Santos again in the group round alongside Salvadoran club CD Águila. Though TFC are again mining the bottom of the Eastern Conference and have never made the MLS playoffs, the June appointment of Paul Mariner as head coach has given renewed belief to the Reds, who have shown they can mix it up with the best when they're on top of their game.
Best Showing: Semifinals (2011-12)
Memorable CCL Moments:
This past spring's semifinal run was easily the club's best performance in the CCL. They narrowly missed out on the top spot of their group to Mexican side Pumas UNAM and upset the defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy in the quarterfinals with a 2-2 draw in front of a club-record crowd at Rogers Centre, followed by a 2-1 win on the road in LA.
- The same year the team went on to face Santos Laguna in the semifinals. Although they eventually lost to the Mexican side, they kept it close for 270 minutes. The teams drew 1-1 in the first leg in Toronto and were tied 2-2 at one point in the return leg – which would've sent Toronto through on away goals – only for Santos to ride a second-half surge to a 6-2 victory on the night.
Who will they face?
Santos Laguna: While los Guerreros have yet to win the CCL in their three previous appearances, they certainly bring a lot to the table. They are the reigning Mexican champions, with their Clausura 2012 title making it four Primera División titles for the Torreón-based club, and their run to the 2011-12 finals was their best showing in the Champions League.
The Santos player best known to MLS fans is likely American export Herculez Gomez, the only player to have won both an MLS Cup and a Primera División title. Attacker Oribe Peralta was last year's co-leading scorer, scoring seven Champions League goals, while Carlos Darwin Quintero and Christian Suárez are also formidable attackers. In the back, longtime Mexican international Oswaldo Sánchez will return between the sticks and imposing Panamanian defender Felipe Baloy will keep things clean in front of him.
CD Águila: This is the Salvadorans' first appearance in the CCL, and their Clausura 2012 was their 15th league title. However, they have made appearances at the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, where they won the 1976 title and became only the second team from El Salvador to win North America's top competition.
Former Chivas USA midfielder Osael Romero will be one of the principal forces in Águila's squad. The diminuitive 26-year-old has scored 14 times in 66 appearances for the Salvadoran national team. On the defensive end, club captain Luis Anaya is a 16-year veteran of the Salvadoran league and has also played 37 times for his country.
Can this team be the first MLS side to win a CCL title?
The odds are firmly stacked against the Reds, with Santos Laguna the clear favorite to claim the lone qualifying spot for the knockout rounds.
Furthermore, facing two teams in their group that are coming recent national championship wins will be no easy feat for Toronto. The Reds have yet to prove themselves in MLS play this season despite a silght uptick in form under Mariner and sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table. Unless they can conjure up even bigger heroics than the ones that saw them triumph against the Galaxy, second place in the group may be the best they can hope for.