Chivas USA, the red-headed three-legged goat of the MLS family, are an exhibition of contradictions.
Sometimes they keep possession, as they did in losing efforts - dominating against Vancouver and keeping level with Kansas City; sometimes they don't - when they were outclassed by Salt Lake on the ball only to snatch the win in the end. Some games they fling crosses into the box, others they don't - though they usually try to.
But when they come to town, one can rest assured, it will be a contest. For a Toronto club still smarting from their CONCACAF disappointment and that unspeakable loss in Montreal, they are a dangerous opponent. The only thing that is certain - one-goal is all that is necessary to decide the outcome.
For their first three matches, Chivas fielded a balanced 4-2-3-1, but have switched in the last two to a 4-1-4-1. But as with all formations, it's a very fluid thing.
With Juan Pablo Angel topping the structure, coach Robin Fraser had the target man up-front that the 4-2-3-1 requires. Angel, an experienced professional, could stretch the line, feed on service from the flanks, drop back to help build, and hold up the play to bring others in; he was - and is - the perfect player for such a role.
The formational change was spurred by the concussion that has kept Angel on the sidelines for most of the campaign - though he is reportedly training again with the club - as well as an injury to Pete Vagenas, who would normally line up alongside Oswaldo Minda as the defensive pair at the base of the midfield. With rookie forward Casey Townsend their only like substitute for Angel - a task not fairly asked of such youth - the club has preferred the 4-1-4-1 formation in the effort to create more attacking thrust from the centre of the midfield.
Nick LaBrocca had a breakout season from that position last year, tallying a career-high eight goals and providing six assists. He notched his first of the season against Portland last weekend. As did Alejandro Moreno, who has been fielded centrally of late, combining a forward's attitude with the work-rate of a midfielder. LaBrocca and Moreno are not shy about getting forward in and around the box; they are especially dangerous with their late runs into the box.
At the other end of the pitch, their back five - or six, depending on how you look at it - has remained unchanged all season.
Chivas should take to the pitch with Dan Kennedy in goal; from right to left - James Riley, Rauwshan McKenzie, Heath Pearce, and Ante Jazic across the back; Minda holding; Ben Zemanski, Moreno, LaBrocca, and Blair Gavin across the top of the midfield; and Cesar Romero as the lone striker.
That said, they have plenty of options in attack.
In the wide positions, Englishman - and Arsenal product - Ryan Smith is dangerous on the left flank when fit, however he seldom is and was duly forced off in the dying minutes of their last match with an apparent foot injury, while versatile Frenchman Laurent Courtois has looked much better this season, having had some time to adjust to the league. With Gavin only recently returning to action from an injury of his own, he and one of Smith and Courtois will likely split the match.
The rookie Townsend could be fielded in place of Romero, should more height be desired against Toronto. Or it is possible that the pesky Moreno could appear up top, as he did in the second half against Portland, forcing Romero out to the right-flank.
They have plenty of other options as well. Highly-touted Ecuadorian Miller Bolanos has yet to really feature with the club, nor has youngster Jorge Villafana, while the club acquired Uruguayan attacker Paolo Cardozo from Los Angeles midweek in exchange for David Junior Lopes, who was surplus to requirements at the back.
Vagenas is nearing a return to fitness, as is right-sided wide man Michael Lahoud.
Plenty of options for Fraser to experiment with, but coming off a solid second-half performance, it is unlikely he would enact too many changes.
Chivas concentrates on using their skillful play down the flanks to get forward and fling crosses into the box. Interplay between wide midfielders and full-backs, central players moving to either side to overload the opposition's defenders, slashing runs, and through-balls into space.
Romero against Portland appeared to always be looking for that darting near-post run, while LaBrocca and Moreno make themselves dangerous with late runs into the centre of the box. The advantage being that by having two smaller, sneaky fellows such as them lurking, they will not be picked up as they approach in the same manner a bigger, more obvious target would.
Fielding Moreno in the attacking midfield has the added bonus of having an extra striker on the pitch without sacrificing numbers in the middle. He can roam forward when in possession, and tuck back when in defense; he has the on-the-ball skill to pair and work nicely with LaBrocca, moving the ball around in distribution, while each has license to move into the wide areas and function as play-makers from there should the situation call for it.
All of their wide midfielders - Zemanski, Gavin, Smith, and Courtois - are capable of not only playing around the outside to deliver service, but also of cutting in to take advantage of any open space for a shot of their own. Smith, in particular, played a wonderful slicing through-ball between the defense for Townsend against Kansas City that keeper Jimmy Nielsen had to be sharp to rush out and suffocate the chance.
Zemanski and Gavin put in more two-way work than the European imports; tracking back defensively, as would Lahoud, should he return to fitness.
Chivas looks to switch play in transition regularly, in search of open space on the opposite side of the pitch.
Minda, nestled in the middle of the park, chases the ball down like he owns it, and nobody else is permitted to play with his property unless he is included in the action. He is a brute as well; any one interested in leaving with the tendons and joints intact would do well to steer clear of his snapping feet. One instance in Portland saw Diego Chara beat him in transition to which his response was first to attempt to pull him back, before proceeding to hack him down with a vicious kick. He received a card for his efforts - yellow, but it could definitely have been red.
Their back-line is very stable, playing all matches as a unit to date. When under pressure, they and the midfielders condense into a tightly packed rectangle of two banks of four, while Minda - literally - hunts out the ball carrier from his free role in the middle.
And in Kennedy they have one of the most in-form keepers of the past two season, often single-handedly keeping his side in with a chance at the points.
All five of their matches thus far have been decided by a single goal. All have been won by the road team.
Sadly for Toronto, this game is at BMO Field.
Both goals Chivas scored against Portland came from Ryan Smith swinging crosses into the heart of the box from the left-side. The first was met by Moreno who had snuck in behind his marker - Eric Brunner - for a free header; the second similarly dispatched by LaBrocca, who ghosted into position to head back across the keeper into the far-netting.
Their only other tally of the season was the result of a mishandled ball by Salt Lake's Nick Rimando. He was bumped by Townsend as the two went up for a cross - from the left, of course, Jazic this time - spilling the ball onto the foot of the rookie who smacked it into the empty net.
All of the four goals they have conceded - five matches, keep in mind - have been the result of not dealing well with sustained pressure or momentarily switching off.
Against Houston in the opening match, a last-minute corner kick led to a scramble. The back-line attempted to push out, leaving Andre Hainault unmarked as he collected a low Adam Moffat shot and smashed it across the keeper.
When Vancouver visited, a corner kick was again Chivas' undoing. A ball from Davide Chiumiento to the back-post was met by Jay DeMerit, who was not properly marked on the set-piece, for a free diving-header.
Against Kansas City, it was the second phase after Graham Zusi had lashed a twenty-five yard strike off the bar that did the damage. The rebound sailed high into the air, when it eventually came down Zusi was there to prod it over to Kei Kamara for an easy headed conversion.
In Portland, a miscommunication between Kennedy and left-back Riley saw both attempt to deal with an easy cross into the box, clattering into each other, and spilling the ball to the foot of Kris Boyd, who took a moment to let it settle before stroking into the unguarded frame.
While goal-scoring has been a concern for the club without the talismanic Angel, their ability to keep matches tight, through stellar goal-keeping and solid defensive structure, is an advantage that many clubs - including TFC - would love to have.
Despite Chivas' lowly status as one of the unheralded and unfashionable clubs in the league Toronto will need to stay sharp in this one. That Chivas have kept themselves in tight matches with some of the better teams in the league, is a sign of a club ready to emerge once their cohesion under a solid, young manager comes to fruition.
Maintaining focus throughout the ninety and attention to detail seems to be an issue in the final third for the LA-based side. When the defense is allowed to keep its structure they do fine; when they are harried, pressured, or caught out of that system, they can crumble.
They are susceptible to being drawn out of position or caught ball-watching in the midfield, which opens up the entire opposite flank. Once versus Portland both wide midfielders - Gavin and Zemanski - were found with yards of each other on the right touchline pressuring the ball, leaving a third of the pitch unmanned; easy pickings for a quick switch and counterattack.
Toronto needs to be ugly in the box, create chaos, and force Chivas to scramble in defense. Get men in there and throw some muscle around, especially from set-pieces. The big bodies need to be in tight and the smaller ones should be positioned in a circumference to collect any scraps that may fall. As mentioned Chivas can lose their shape when confronted with such a direct and unorthodox application of pressure.
Be wary of their width and the late-runners into the box; do not get caught ball-watching, they will punish you. Watch for Chivas to come out early in this match, a comeback win on the road in Portland, the result in Salt Lake, this is a team that emerges from the shadow of their roommates at the Home Depot Center to perform on the road.
Perhaps that is in part a result of the terrible crowds they get at home; while the home fans can be intimidating to a visiting side, they can also be energizing. Chivas gets up for that challenge, it suits their mindset to be the underdog, to be dogged in defending and thieving in attack. Wins in Portland and Salt Lake, two of the better atmospheres in the league, attest to this fact.
Don't get discouraged by Kennedy making saves, keep on pressing, they can be cracked.
Points of Interest
Beware the Ecuadorian influence - Joao Plata and Minda will certainly be on the pitch; should Bolanos play, there will be three Ecuadorians in the match. Plata and Bolanos will most certainly know each other as they were both at LDU Quito at the same time, while Minda was at Deportivo Quito; the two clubs partake in the Clásico Capitalino, a fiercely contested derby. Plata best watch himself around his countryman.
LaBrocca's return - hopefully there is no wind assistance when Chivas is attacking the South End.
Canadian left-back Jazic has been doing very well for the Ameri-goats. Against Portland he stole a ball of the foot of Lovell Palmer with a fine sliding challenge and contributed an excellent last-ditch block to prevent Frank Songo'o from getting a shot off, while even at his advanced age, still having the engine necessary to patrol his flank and get forward. His reliable, strong performances could well see him factor with the National Team in this summer's qualification schedule.
Second-half Chivas against Portland was an entirely different beast - the ball moved more freely and they kept possession. Perhaps Fraser gives excellent team talks, or perhaps Smith is just that dangerous. Be wary of a response, when play opens back up for the second frame.
The Masked Moreno has already twice broken his nose this season, he ditched the mask pretty early against Portland. Be careful out there.