CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Friday, March 30, 2012
Herculez Gomez started, played 68 minutes, and scored a goal for Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League Semifinal against Toronto FC.
Gomez got the nod again as the White and Green visited rainy Toronto for the first leg of the Champions League semifinal, pitting the high-octane offense that's leading the Mexican league against the surprising Toronto FC, riding high after defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy in the last round.
The destruction left behind after the Seattle Sounders came to Torreon on the return leg of their quarterfinal matchup led many to believe that Santos was going to take Toronto apart piece by piece, however the Canadians were up to the challenge.
Toronto FC came close to scoring first early in the 9th minute when Danny Koevermans hit a free kick from 24 yards out, putting it past the wall on the wet turf. With the ball skidding in dangerously towards goal, Oswaldo Sanchez dropped to his stomach and smothered it, doing well to not give up a rebound to the rushing Toronto forwards.
In the 12th minute, Carlos Quintero came inches away from putting Santos into the lead when he capitalized on a terrible mistake by Miguel Aceval, who tried to clear the ball out of danger just outside the goalbox, but succeeded only in kicking the ball off of his own foot, bouncing the ball right to Quintero. The Colombian jumped on the ball and hit it at goal, but a great save by Milos Kocic kept him off the board.
It would be Gomez's turn to test Kocic in the 18th minute, making a run into the box and getting on the end of a Quintero pass from the right flank. Beating his defender to the ball, Gomez put a glancing chip on the ball from about 14 yards out, trying to beat Kocic to the far post. The Serbian goalkeeper was able to make the save by stretching every inch of his 6'4'' frame to bat the ball wide.
Gomez would finally do it in the 30th minute, scoring for his seventh game in a row, with nine during that span. Another ball in from Quintero on the right flank found Gomez making a perfectly timed run to beat Toronto's offside trap, leaving him all along to march in on Kocic. Gomez controlled the ball with the side of his chest, leaving many people clamoring for a handball to go along with their accusations of offsides. Gomez hit a half volley on his first touch inside the box, beating Kocic to the far post to keep his goal scoring streak alive.
Five minutes later, Santos defender Jorge Estrada was late to a tackle, fouling Ryan Johnson about 28 yards out, towards the left of goal. Aceval stepped up to take the free kick while Koevermans received a yellow card for arguing with the referee. Aceval struck a hard shot clean up the middle of the goal, bending only slightly away from Sanchez who was too late to react, palming ineffectively at the ball as it passed by.
Ryan Johnson had the first chance on the other side of half time to put Toronto FC into the lead, taking a square pass right in front of goal and putting it on frame in the 63rd minute. The shot was barely pushed to the side by Sanchez, resulting in a corner kick.
Only two minutes later, Santos midfielder Marc Crosas, Gomez's best friend on the team, played a spectacular long ball from the defensive half of the field, picking out Gomez running behind the defense. The forty yard pass put Gomez in on goal, but he didn't put enough power on his volley to beat Kocic, who made a diving save to catch the ball. As Kocic spun to come back up, his cleats collided with Gomez as he was running by, putting the American on the ground with a knee injury. Gomez appeared to be able to walk it off on the sideline, but Benjamin Galindo was taking no chances with the star striker, and subbed him off.
The game would mostly settle down for the remaining 20 minutes, until stoppage time when things got a little chippy. Carlos Quintero would receive a straight red card during a fracas with an injured Toronto player whom he was accused of headbutting, which led to a bench clearing scuffle to end the game. While it appeared to only be a lot of talking and shoving, there were several players who had to be hauled away by their teammates and security guards to keep them from doing more.
After the fact, Toronto FC manager Aron Winter was quoted as saying "You expect that from South American teams," while, according to Toronto's website, an unnamed Spanish-speaking journalist reportedly quoted Herculez Gomez as saying "If we score 6-1 against the best team in the MLS (Seattle), can you imagine what we can do to Toronto."
Gomez, responding on Twitter the next morning, denied it and asked for any kind of proof from the people supposedly quoting him.
During the weekend leading up to the semifinal clash, Gomez spoke with YA, where he was questioned about the team's confidence going into the match, and whether or not they considered themselves favorites at this point. Gomez had this to say: "By no means do we think, or consider ourselves favorites against Toronto. I mean, Toronto beat the Galaxy. They deserve to be where they are, we're just looking forward to going down there and doing our best in Toronto and hopefully bringing it back here to close out the series in a way that we want."
The return leg to Torreon is sure to feature fireworks as Toronto aims for a stunning upset over the Mexican leaders, while Santos will be looking for a repeat of the Seattle dismantling during the last round.
The second leg will be played Wednesday, April 4.