From CONCACAF highs to the lows of a dual loss - the match and their captain - in Seattle, it has been a dramatic season for Toronto FC thus far. Saturday sees the Reds in their home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Former Canadian International and National Team Manager Frank Yallop and the Quakes are unbeaten in their last four matches at BMO Field dating back to 2008 (1-0-3) with Chris Wondolowski scoring four goals in his last two visits to Toronto.
Both sides are coming off disappointing losses on Saturday night - Toronto 3-1 to Seattle and San Jose 0-1 at home against Houston.
In their two matches San Jose have fielded very similar lineups; the only changes from matches one to two were in the midfield - Rafael Baca moving out to the right in place Marvin Chavez with Khari Stephenson stepping into the centre to add more size in the middle of the park against the very physical Houston Dynamo.
Jon Busch will take his usual position in goal, from right to left Steven Beitashour, Victor Bernardez, Justin Morrow and the venerable Ramiro Corrales across the back. One-time TFC draft-pick Sam Cronin sitting as a defensive midfielder with Marvin Chavez, Rafael Baca, and Shea Salinas across the top of the midfield; Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski paired up top.
In this their fifth season since returning to the league from a two-year hiatus, San Jose is enjoying a new found depth providing them with a plethora of options.
Colombian Tressor Moreno is still finding his fitness and getting into the rhythm of MLS; he came on for a half hour against Houston and showed very well - a starting role would not be shocking, especially given he would counter Toronto's possession style well and has the passing skills to pick apart the fractured defense.
Khari Stephenson got the start against Houston, but is out of place in that attacking midfield role lacking the dynamism for which the position calls; he does however add a physical presence in the middle of the park and from set pieces, both in defense and attack.
Turkish striker Sercan Guvenisik is also still adjusting to his new league seeing ten minutes against Houston as San Jose went in search of an equalizer. Tottenham's Simon Dawkins came on for the final half hour against New England with limited effectiveness - dragging a late attempt wide that could have secured the full points in a nervy ending, while Anthony Ampaipitakwong has yet to see the pitch or the bench in this young season.
Defensively Jason Hernandez too is yet to see the pitch and Ike Opara is away with the US Olympic team.
Alan Gordon has recently returned to training with the squad, but would be a surprise inclusion should he make the trip to Toronto - thankfully, as he has a tendency to score goals against his former clubs.
Brad Ring was often paired with Cronin or in his stead last season at the base of the midfield; but given Cronin's fine form, fresh legs early in the season, and San Jose's more attacking style - and the fact that he has not been named to the eighteen-man game-day roster as of yet - expect Cronin to maintain that position.
San Jose can vary their attack - against New England and in the beginning against Houston they exhibited their primary style of getting the ball out wide and flinging crosses into the box.
They have tons of pace down the flanks and quite a few players that can deliver some excellent service - Beitashour in particular, was a revelation last season from right-back, providing seven assists from that position ranking him amongst some esteemed company near the top of that particular statistic.
In Lenhart and Wondolowski San Jose fields a modern big man-small man combination, one reminiscent of that which was so prevalent in English football of the past, not surprising given Yallop's background,
Lenhart plays the battering ram - wearing down defenders, winning aerials balls, forcing openings, and finding his partner with a near-telepathic understanding. For a big, physical and goofy character the former Crew front man has a lot of intelligence and a fair bit of cunning in his game.
He showed a superhuman amount of tenacity against the Revolution, inviting contact at every opportunity, and punishing the defenders, at least until he picked up a yellow card for his obstruction on Kevin Alston near the end of the first half. He repeated the performance against Houston, including another booking.
He is more likely to create a yard of space for his partner than score himself; the perfect foil for the marksman Wondolowski with whom there is a remarkable amount of understanding. One instance against Houston saw the curly-haired menace collect a loose ball in a scramble at the top of the box and play Wondo in with a surprisingly deft touch for an excellent shot on goal.
He is equally likely to scrap it out in the corners and deliver crosses from the wide areas when necessary, but without his presence in the box, the Earthquakes are less a threat.
As for his strike-partner, what can be said about the man who has netted thirty-four times in the last two seasons? The man who Portland coach John Spencer once called the most natural finisher he had ever seen.
Golden Boot winner in 2010; runner-up last season - eventually losing out to Dwayne De Rosario on tie-breaking assists - Wondolowski is one of the most dangerous single players in the league.
Excellent breaking in on goal with intelligent runs his real threat comes in the form of his ability to be in the right position and find that yard of space necessary to finish. They aren't all pretty goals, but each one counts.
Like Lenhart he does not give up on an opportunity. Early in the Houston match a throw-in fell in front of Tally Hall and with the defenders napping and Hall slow to collect Wondolowski snuck in and nearly gave his side the lead.
San Jose's wide midfielders - Salinas, Baca, and Chavez - will often switch flanks throughout the match, hoping to catch out the opposition's full-backs by constantly keeping them on their toes with variety. When inverted they look to cut in-field and outnumber the defense, relying on skill and speed.
The threat of crosses is maintained, despite the interminable switching, by the two full-backs; Beitashour's younger legs providing the more constant threat, balanced by Corrales' experienced head, getting forward when it is most opportune.
In Moreno they have the ability to change their game to a more technical through the middle type of game. In his half hour of action he was exceptional at keeping the ball moving, switching it quickly and accurately from flank to flank, retaining possession, and penetrating with through-balls and clever one-twos to create space.
The low-scoring nature of their two matches thus far exhibits a side still finding their attacking form following several off-season acquisitions, but also a team that has improved immensely on the defensive side of the ball.
Wondolowski's goal scored in the New England match capitalized on sloppy play in midfield by Shalrie Joseph. A weak, errant pass was snapped up by Salinas, who played Wondolowski in with a nice through-ball for a low, right-footed shot across the keeper. Though there were hints of offside that quick transition play and striking accuracy will be a constant threat.
The lone goal they have conceded - to Houston - was a penalty kick. Busch came rushing out haphazardly, prompted by an Adam Moffat ball over the defensive line, which bounced awkwardly for the defenders and the keeper near Brian Ching. Busch clattered into the Dynamo talisman and was beaten on the spot kick by a superbly placed Brad Davis conversion into the side netting, despite the keeper guessing the proper direction - his left.
Set pieces are always a threat, in particular given Lenhart's skill in the air and Wondolowski's ability to find the right position and remain unmarked.
No set free kick taker - Cronin will deliver them from deep, looking to drop balls into dangerous positions. Bernardez sized up a direct opportunity smashing his fierce attempt into the wall, while Salinas took a large number of corner kicks and a few free kicks with limited success.
Chavez attempted a direct kick late in the match against Houston, only to see it sail high and disappointingly off target; Wondolowski took the next and attempted to power the ball through the wall only to be foiled by an apparent handball by Moffat.
When attacking with pace the Quakes like to play the ball inside the outside back, into the space between him and the centre-back, finding a lot of success with slashing runs from the wide midfielders and Wondolowski's ability to lurk in these pockets unnoticed.
They enjoyed a good spell of pressure in the final twenty minutes versus Houston, pushing to find an equalizer, but lacked any clear chances.
Bernardez will match up well with Koevermans at the back; big and powerful, but also quick and skillful, he kept Brian Ching quiet all match - equaled him physically, while deftly dispossessing him when required.
The loss of Frings will weigh heavy on the minds of the Toronto fans and players. Should de Guzman attempt to fill that position - not exactly as a sweeper, but functioning more as a connector with Dunfield alongside to help hold down the centre of the pitch - expect the full backs to be much more conservative, choosing their moments to get forward rather than always being on the attack. The loss of Frings coupled with Eckersley's reticence - slowness to respond or lack of instruction - to play a more defensive game was costly against Seattle, allowing Fernandez space and time on the left to pick apart the back-line and feed Estrada for his hat-trick. It would not be a surprise to see Emory in over Morgan, as a more defensive option to deal with the pace and guile of San Jose's attack.
Morrow is not a centre-back by trade, last season he saw the field exclusively at left-back, his speed allows him to recover from simple mistakes, but if isolated or caught watching, his inexperience could be exposed. Koevermans should seek to isolate himself with the young defender in an attempt to exploit any weaknesses and keep himself away from the savvier Bernardez.
Jon Busch is a spectacular if erratic keeper, force him to make decisions and apply pressure. Not only did he concede the penalty in rushing out unadvisedly, but a casual chip-pass over Andre Hainault led to an unnecessary chance for Houston's Canadian full-back when the ball struck him on the chest.
It will be important for Toronto to be precise with their passing and possession in the midfield, namely to limit the quick break opportunities, while using their width and pace to pin-back the full-backs and keep the wide midfielders from advancing forward too often.
Aceval and Maund will need be cautious with their clearances and be ready to be preoccupied with Lenhart, while watching the movement of Wondolowski with a wary eye.
The Earthquakes are vulnerable to some trickery and susceptible to momentarily switching off - Benny Feilhaber nearly drew the Revolution equal in stoppage time following a skillful touch and volley from the edge of the box. Johnson and Plata cutting into the space provided by Koevermans movement in the box could prove crucial to the result.
Points of Interest
Corrales has a long throw on him, be wary of Lenhart winning flicked-on headers from these throw-ins in dangerous areas in the box.
This is yet another of these East vs. West potential smash and grab opportunities, as the two clubs will not meet again and are not in direct competition with each other for playoff positions. Winning points at home, especially these bonus ones, will greatly improve the chances of a postseason berth.
To satisfy the fickle Toronto crowd the first goal will be key; suffering that loss in Seattle, the injury to Frings, and five prior years of futility weighs heavy on the conscience and should Toronto fall behind there is the risk that the crowd will be silenced and the team - without their leader - could falter.
This is San Jose's first road match of the season, last season - as with most of the league - they struggled accumulating a 3-8-6 record. Will they continue their compact defensive form on the road? Or revert to their former difficulties?
You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee
You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee