Here we are again, embarking on the latest stage of Toronto FC's Concacaf Champions League quest, and tradition now dictates that I pronounce this 'THE. MOST. IMPORTANT. GAME. OF. THE. SEASON!' I'm happy to do it, because TFC has won all these 'most important games' so far, and also because it is. The first two games, Tauro away then Dallas at home are going to be crucial to any chances TFC has of making it past the group stage for the first time.
The third and 4th games should really be considered foregone conclusions, it's ridiculously unlikely that we'll get any kind of result in Mexico City against Pumas UNAM, and the home game against Tauro has to be considered a banker for 3 points if we've got any hope of qualifying. The 5th and 6th games, home to Pumas and away to Dallas, they'll be tough and might be important depending on how we do in the first few games, but really it's going to come down to these first 2 games before September's international break. 6 points from those games will, combined with the 3 points we HAVE to get at home against Tauro, mean probably 1 or 2 points from the other 3 games will be enough to advance. 4 points will make it difficult, anything less than that and we'll be left needing to get results in Mexico or Dallas.
So, there's a lot hinging on the result of Thursday's game, but what sort of lineup will we see? Will Aron Winter put out his strongest possible team, and if necessary rest players in Sunday's MLS game in Chicago? Or will he continue with how he played against Real Esteli and throw in a few younger kids along with the veterans? Will the 3-4-3 be continued with, or will he switch back to his favoured 4-3-3?
It may be that Winter was confident that the weaker team he put out against Esteli was as good as it needed to be, as opposed to wanting to keep his A team fresh for league play. Hopefully that is the case and he'll recognise that Tauro is a stronger team and thus play a stronger team. Last year Preki underestimated another Panamanian side Arabe Unido, and paid for it with a 2-1 loss, pissing away the great chance TFC had given themselves by picking up 3 points against Cruz Azul, as well as most of the small amount of goodwill he still had with TFC fans. Surely Winter won't make the same mistake.
I don't think he will, probably he'll limit any experimentation to the youngsters who are already on the fringes of the first team, Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson, as well as Milos Kocic who'll probably get another start to give Stefan Frei enough time to full recover from his injury.
Formation wise, I think we'll probably see the 4-3-3 return as Winter suggested the 3-4-3 was very much a way of countering Real Salt Lake, but who'll be in defence? With Torsten Frings suspended after picking up two yellow cards against Real Esteli, TFC will have to go back to playing regular defenders there, and I think one of them will be Doneil Henry again. Andy Iro and Richard Eckersley should both be there again, but I think if TFC do switch back to a flat back 4, and without Frings they really should, Ashtone Morgan will likely get the start at Left Back rather than Danleigh Borman, though neither of them are particularly great at the defensive side of things.
In Midfield the Defensive Midfield spot can be taken by Julian de Guzman, and I'll go with Eric Avila and, as a reward for a good performance against RSL, Matt Stinson as the more attacking midfielders ahead of him, with Terry Dunfield coming on as a second half substitute.
Up front, I'd definitely go with big Joao again on the left, and despite his inconsistencies, I'd be inclined to give Peri Marosevic another go at Right wing. As the Centre Forward, Danny Koevermans had a poor match against Real and seemed to be struggling a bit as if all the recent games were catching up to him, so if Ryan Johnson is fit again, I'd give him the start and let Koevermans sit on the bench, rest, but be ready to come on if necessary, the same as what worked so well in Esteli. If Koevermans does start, the wingers really have to do a better job of getting good crosses in for him, he's shown off a lethal finish when given chances in the box so far, but was given nothing to work with on Saturday and thus was pretty anonymous.
What can we expect from Tauro? Well that's the big unknown here isn't it? They've been one of the best teams in Panama since the Panamanian league was started, and are the 2010 Apertura champion and had some decent results in the CCL back in 2008. They beat Chivas USA over 2 legs in the knockout round and won a couple of home games, including one against Mexican side Santos Laguna, in the group , finishing a very close third and just missing out on advancing. So they're no pushovers, and really shouldn't be taken lightly, but really if Toronto FC wants to think of itself as a legitimate contender to come out of this group, it absolutely has to be looking to get 6 points from the games against Tauro, making Thursday's game a must win.