The home (sort of) opener is upon us. Can TFC build on last week's small positives?
Last week was all about looking for positives. No-one expected a win, it was just a case of crossing fingers for some signs of progress, wobbly baby steps to start off the marathon trek to respectability, and we got them. Promising performances from a few of the new signings, and a tactically competent display that effectively shut down Vancouver in the first half. Of course that didn't last into the second half as Vancouver dominated after changing things around with the Reo Coker substition, and none of those promising performances really led to serious trouble for the Whitecaps, but hey, it's a start.
Now here we are, it's home opener time, when even the most cynical fan can get excited for the chance to go to a game for the first time in months, and at the least enjoy all the peripheral stuff again, the friendships and camaraderie and the relatively blank slate of early season, where there's still room for optimism, however implausible. It's not quite the same what with the game being at the dome, the excitement feels a bit manufactured really, and whatever optimism is out there is also a little different, a bit too forced, not quite right, just like the fieldturf.
Whereas last year's game at the Skydome was full of hype and excitement and the genuine though that TFC were ready to compete in 2012, expectations are very different now. If last week's game was better than most would have thought, there's still only a fragile optimism at best, and for me at least and I think many others, that's only due to a willful suspension of disbelief, looking to the bright side because there's already been so much negativity and failure and there's only so much you can take. Can TFC give us enough in this game to enable that suspension to continue? That might not necessarily mean a win, or even a tie, maybe not even a goal, though that at least would be nice. The bar is outrageously low really, give us some kind of sign of improvement, something to cling on to, to convince ourselves we're not crazy for not completely giving up on the season.
One hope for improvement is the fact that the team has actually had some time together to practice, rather than having so many new players signed up in the day or two before the game as was the situation last week. Familiarity should help, as should improved fitness for Robert Earnshaw and Hogan Ephraim, who were both struggling towards the end of last week's game. There may well be reinforcements as players return from injury as well, Stefan Frei seems unlikely to be back this week, but Julio Cesar and Luis Silva are possible returnees.
So there's definitely things to look to that suggest TFC could improve, but then you come to the problem of the opponent. Sporting Kansas City were of course one of the best teams in the league last year and only look to have got stronger. Yes they lost Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara to the Premier League, but they had a very good off season. Ike Opara brings defensive depth, Benny Feilhaber brings an extra dimension to the attack, and Claudio Bieler is an impressive addition up front. All those signings happened early in the off season (imagine that, time for new players to gel!) and young stars Graham Zusi and Matt Besler also were both signed up to new long term contracts to cap off an impressive off season. Jimmy Neilsen, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic, CJ Sapong are all back as well (as are everyone's favourite Canada haters, Teal Bunbury and Jacob Peterson, though neither are fit to play in this game) and they're very likely candidates to be winning the Eastern Conference again. They got off to a great start last week with a 3-1 win in Philadelphia and will be looking to once again scoop up more easy points against the weaker teams, they did of course get all 9 points from Toronto last year.
A big feature of their play last year is something that Toronto are looking to emulate, which is a very aggressive, high pressing defensive style. There's no time given to the defenders which many times last year led to TFC having to just clear the ball rather than build from the back, leading Kamara to compare them to a lower league English team. That leads to more and more pressure as the ball comes right back at the defence, and the pattern last year was that TFC always broke under that pressure. That tactic won't have changed and we'll see the same thing from the Sporks on Saturday which will make it very challenging to get things going, especially if Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall are in the defensive midfielder positions again.
What other options are there? Well that might well depend on the injury status of Julio Cesar and Luis Silva. Given what we just saw happen with Jay DeMerit, hopefully no chances will be taken with the skydome turf if they aren't 100%, but Cesar would be a welcome improvement over Hall in both directions. He'd be more comfortable dealing with the pressure SKC will apply when TFC have the ball, as well as bringing more experience to the defensive side of things.
Another potential change is if Silva is fit. He would be a natural to be fit into the spot behind the striker that Kyle Bekker played in last week, to bring an added scoring threat to help Earnshaw out, someone else for the defence to have to focus on. Bekker could then be moved back to the defensive spot, where his ability to think quickly and pass smartly would be a big help in breaking out from defence past the pressure SKC applies, though given the presence of Zusi and Feilhaber, the defensive ability in that position is going to be just as important.
Aside from the midfield, the other positions should be fairly straight forward and will more than likely be the same as we saw last week. Joe Bendik will probably start again, with Stefan Frei needing more time to recuperate, and it's be a huge surprise to see anyone other than the same back 4 of Richard Eckersley, Danny Califf, Darren O'Dea and Ashtone Morgan. Up front Earnshaw should get the start again, Hogan Ephraim showed enough to warrant a start on the wing, and for now, well as dispiriting as this statement is Reggie Lambe's probably the best option wide on the right.
Hopefully they can feed off the energy of the crowd and find a way to turn the tables on SKC, apply pressure and put them on the back foot. It's difficult to see how this can end well for TFC, but stranger things have happened, maybe they will be able to come out of this with some kind of result, get rid of the spectre of another long losing streak to start the season. More than likely we'll be left looking for the positives to be found in another defeat, whether it's an individual performance, more signs of Ryan Nelsen bringing an improved defence, maybe glimpses of the future in how Kyle Bekker and Luis Silva can link up. Who knows really, for now at least it's about TFC being back in Toronto, I'm happy to have a game to go to again.