Ah Columbus. Columbus, Columbus, Columbus. You all know the one big damning statistic, that after 4 years of MLS and 11 games against the Crew, there's still a big fat 0 in the win column for Toronto FC against their 'rivals'. A stat that was extended in the most preposterous way possible last year, with an equalising goal scored in injury time by Will Hesmer, the Columbus Goalie.
Is it really a rivalry though? Obviously it started out as a very manufactured 'derby', the Trillium Cup is a bit of a joke, and once Montreal enters the league in 2012, it will pale in comparison, but for now yes it is. There's been enough incidents over the years to generate genuine bad blood between the supporters and until Toronto can actually beat the Crew, that 0 win statistic will hang over proceedings, ensuring they'll never be relegated to 'just another MLS club'. If Aron Winter and players such as Julian De Guzman in this Red Nation Online article aren't just paying lip service and are serious about not wanting to let the fans down again, this is the perfect chance for them to show it by going out there and finally beating the Crew.
Hesmer will be back on Saturday, but a lot of former Crew players who became familiar nemeses to TFC won't be after they underwent an off season makeover of the team. No Guillermo Barros Schelotto, no Steven Lenhart, no Frankie Hejduk and no Gino Padula. That's an awful lot of talent to lose, not to mention a lot of really bad hair, so for once Columbus would seem to be in as much of a position of fluctuation and rebuilding as Toronto are, can the Reds take advantage?
Aside from the Columbus factor, it's a big game for a couple of reasons. Firstly1 win in 4 home games so far really isn't good enough, both as far as the league standings and fan interest are concerned. Yes TFC's rebuilding and we all need to have patience, it's about the future and all that, and I've joked before about how this season is just one extended 2012 pre-season, but if we do want to have any hope of being competitive this year, or at the very least keeping the home fans satisfied and on board with the rebuild, TFC need to start winning their home games. The other reason is the fact that we're coming off a game that equalled TFC's record for worst ever home defeat, so this can really be considered a statement game, the reaction to the defeat against DC United should give us an idea of the mental toughness of this team.
It's not going to be easy, as after an opening day loss to DC United, Columbus have now gone 4 straight games unbeaten, getting 8 points from those 4 games. Chad Marshall is still a big presence at Centre Back, and he's been joined by former TFC player Julius James to form a solid partnership that has helped them keep clean sheets in all those 4 games. Though sound defensively, they haven't really got going scoring wise yet with only 4 goals in their 5 league games so far. Peruvian international Andres Mendoza is their main striker up front, supported by Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven on the wings, and it's Rogers who leads them with 2 goals so far from the left, so hopefully Richard Eckersley is an upgrade at Right Back or he could have a very enjoyable day. Given the history, and the hold Columbus has over Toronto, the logical thing to expect is for Jeff Cunningham to get into the game at some point and score against us, hopefully at the very least TFC can stop that from happening.
Who'll be in the starting lineup for TFC? Good question, suspensions and injuries of varying unknown severity mean that there will again be changes, but guessing exactly how TFC will line up is once again a bit of a crapshoot.
I'll say with certainty that Stefan Frei will be in goal, but the defence will definitely change, and it's quite possible that all 4 starters from the game against DC will be out of the starting line up. Ty Harden is definitely out, suspended following last week's red card, he'll be replaced as one of the Centre Back's by Nana Attakora who had an ok game after coming on as a substitute. Adrian Cann will continue in the other CB spot, but only if he has recovered from the bruised ribs that forced him out of the game against DC, otherwise expect Dicoy Williams to get his first start.
At Right Back, the Jacob Peterson experiment didn't really go well last week, so I think we'll see Richard Eckersley become the 4th starter in 7 games at that position, hopefully he'll be able to make it his own. At Left Back, Danleigh Borman had a rough game against DC, and was directly at fault for their second goal. He could be replaced by Mikael Yourassowsky, but I think Winter will stick with Borman, if only to give one small bit of consistency at the back.
In Midfield, De Guzman seems to have come through his first full 90 minutes of the season unscathed, so I'd expect him to be starting again in the Defensive Midfield position. I think there'll also be a place for Jacob Peterson. Though he didn't look good at Right Back against DC, he's been doing a steady job in midfield so far this season, and after he was moved up there following Ty Harden's sending off, Toronto played their best football of the game, and he came closer than anyone to scoring with two diving header from Dan Gargan long throws. The other thing in his favour is his dead ball ability, with chances consistently being created from his free kicks, so I think he'll get the start ahead of Tony Tchani who's looked disappointing in the last couple of games after a bright start to his TFC career. Despite a series of poor showings, I'd expect to see Maicon Santos given another start, exactly where will depend on the health of Alan Gordon, but on the assumption that Gordon will be fit, I'll put Santos at Attacking Midfield.
Up front, I think Gordon will be back in the starting lineup to battle against Chad Marshall, and Javier Martina will definitely be back at Right Wing. Hopefully Eckersley will be able to give him the support from Right Back that has really been lacking so far this season. Without the sort of supportive runs made by Borman and Yourassowsky on the left, defences have been able to really focus on Martina and nullify his undoubted talents, finding a way to get him a bit more space will be crucial to TFC's chances this season.
On the left, there's more injury concerns with Alen Stevanovic, who was reduced to a barely walking passenger by the end of the game against DC. This seems to be a bit of a trend where he looks beaten up by the end of every game but is fine for the next one, I'd expect to see him on the left.
I'm going to go with the optimistic outlook that all the injuries will clear up enough to allow people to play, so this is what we'll see.
As for a scoreline prediction, it'll be another low scoring game for the Crew, but TFC will avoid another bad start and play a hard working 90 minutes and get a well deserved 1-0 win. Alan Gordon's return and ability to hold the ball up will improve the forward line and Alen Stevanovic will score the goal. I don't really have all that much to base it on, other than "we surely can't be that bad again can we?" and "we've got to beat them at some point right?".
As always feel free to leave your own predictions, as well as any legitimate reasons for optimism you can come up with in the comments section.