Four matches down; thirty more to go.
Prior to the season it was not impossible to imagine that through four games – given tough road trips to Canadian Rivals and home fixtures against the class of the league – Toronto FC would find themselves in a similar position to last season: winless to start the season.
Four points at the end of that difficult spell and positive signs emerging under the tutelage of a new brain trust, the club and fans alike have reason to feel more confident than they have in years.
The goals of Robert Earnshaw, rumoured signings – both near and far, the emergence of more talent from the academy – Jonathan Osorio as an option off the bench (steady, steady), and the spring thaw lend an air of mild satisfaction to proceedings down at BMO Field.
While still far too early to dare name it hope, aspirations are beginning to come unfrozen. But Saturday at home, their fifth match of the season, brings with it another challenge – FC Dallas.
Dallas would be considered by many the shock of the nascent season were it not for the exploits of Chivas USA and Montreal.
Having missed the playoffs last season – four points shy of Vancouver’s mark – the progress under Schellas Hyndman that saw them reach the 2010 MLS Cup Final – losing to the Colorado Rapids in Toronto – stalled; perhaps it was simply a natural decline.
Injury to Colombian designated player, David Ferreira, hampered the side, both on the pitch and financially, and the Brek Shea saga lingered on as the potential superstar was mired in injury and controversy.
Thus far 2013 has been far kinder to the Texan side; a closer look at the enemy is in order.
Shea is gone – off to Stoke City FC of the EPL in January, so too is long-time keeper – and fan-favourite in Toronto – Kevin Hartman, who saw his contract not renewed at season’s end, and TFC’s old friend, Julian de Guzman – who himself had a fractious relationship with TFC fans – has also departed, bound for the 2. Bundesliga; but in have come several pieces.
A new goalkeeper, Peruvian international, Raul Fernandez; Brazilian left-back turned midfielder, Michel, former TFC and Vancouver tattooed-striker, Eric Hassli, and the return of the prodigal son, Kenny Cooper, to his native land – to name but a few additions.
Their projected lineup come Saturday is as follows: Fernandez in goal; from right to left – Zach Loyd, George John, Matt Hedges, and Jair Benitez, across the back; Andrew Jacobson and Michel sitting in front of the back-four; Jackson, Ferreira, and Fabian Castillo across the midfield, with Cooper as the lone striker.
Dallas has toyed around with several formational and positional options through their first five matches, seeking to make use of their varied attackers.
Whether a strike partnership of Cooper and Castillo through the first two matches, starting Cooper, nominally on the right of midfield, and Panamanian striker Blas Perez up top against Houston – this was an interesting experiment that resulted in a quasi-lop-sided formation leaving right-midfield virtually unmanned, though Cooper and Jacobson put in a shift to assist Loyd defensively, and asking Jackson to surge up the left - or even deploying Ferreira on the left-side of midfield rather than through the middle, Dallas has tried everything.
With a trio of big strikers from which to choose, Hassli has found playing time limited, amassing only thirty-six minutes through three substitute appearances.
Either Perez or Hassli could fill Cooper’s starting role, Perez the more likely option, and both could see some time as subs, depending on the game situation.
It is unlikely that Chris Seitz, who filled in for Fernandez’s international absence admirably - a clean-sheet against Salt Lake - returns to the goal any time soon with the makings of a battle for goalkeeping spots between the top two and highly-touted Mexican youth International, Richard Sanchez, brewing.
The likes of Je-Vaughan Watson, Bobby Warshaw, Stephen Keel, as well as homegrown projects, London Woodberry, Jonathan Top, and Kellyn Acosta, have been limited to substitute or bench roles.
Seasoned French defensive midfield acquisition Peter Luccin suffered a knee injury at the end of February, while Ramon Nunez is still recovering from a similar injury of his own.
The club is off to their best start in franchise history, amassing twelve points after five matches – four wins and a loss – and sit atop the Western Conference.
That mark belies a mixed start to the season.
They could be considered fortunate to win their opening match against Colorado 1-0 - a disjointed affair - on the strength of a goalkeeping howler from second-(now third)-string Rapids keeper Steward Ceus, who rushed out to meet a speculative floating ball from Ferreira near the centre-line, only to see it bound over his head leaving Jackson a simple finish into an empty net.
They lost their next match 3-1 - having taken the lead through Ferreira - to a three-goal final half-hour from Chivas in Los Angeles, before taking a heartening 3-2 victory back at home against in-state foes, Houston.
A pair of set-piece goals from John and Jacobson a minute apart in the first half before the Dynamo drew level with a pair in four minutes as the match entered the final ten minutes of play.
Cooper controversially scored the winner, as the board for stoppage time was readied to be lifted, seeming to control a Michel cross with his arm before poking in a left-footed finish.
They next faced a depleted Salt Lake in Dallas, rolling out 2-0 winners on second-half strikes from Castillo and Ferreira, before again taking the full points at the death, 1-0 away to New England last weekend.
Ferreira, whether from open play or delivering set-pieces, is their primary danger man, though of late Michel has taken over some of the set-piece duties.
After missing over a year due to an ankle injury suffered in Vancouver, he has slowly rounded into form after rejoining the side midway through the 2012 season. He has shown flashes of the attacker that was named MLS MVP in 2010, such as this scintillating tip-toe run and finish down the left against Chivas.
Castillo will trouble the right-back incessantly, his youthful inconsistency may have stifled his contributions, but he must be watched carefully and denied running space, lest he provide something like this, against Salt Lake.
Jackson has been in great form – two goals and an assist through five matches, prompting some to add him to their fantasy team – extending the displays with which he ended last season – four goals and two assists in his last eleven matches.
Cooper has yet to find the goal-scoring form that saw him tally eighteen with New York, but has contributed and is due for a breakout.
Then there is Perez, whose international commitments and fitness have prevented him from getting a solid run with the side. As with last season, he must be watched sidling towards deliveries from the behind, as he did for the winner against New England.
Between Cooper, Perez, and the centre-back duo of Hedges and John, Dallas has plenty of height to cause trouble on set pieces. Against Houston, their first two goals came form such situations, Michel's ball placement and John's mere presence causing enough trouble to see Bobby Boswell's defensive header bounce in off a Dallas back.
One of the keys to TFC’s start to the season has been the newfound emphasis on pressuring the ball-carrier higher up the field. Dallas has not dealt well with such pressure this season.
Both Houston’s goals came from not giving up, with Kofi Sarkodie harrying Michel near the end-line to win possession and Brad Davis latching onto a flubbed save from Fernandez.
While Oswaldo Minda's eventual game-winner for Chivas similarly came from not assuming play was dead, as he pressed John after an over-hit Watson pass, forcing an error and finding goal.
Toronto needs to employ that high-pressing game, but must also seek to move the ball more quickly – looking at you John Bostock, once you beat a man, don't stop and force yourself to do it again. Modulating from slow build to quick bursts can catch the opposition unprepared and guessing.
Chivas’ first goal came from some very direct play with defender Walter Vilchez playing a ball from deep into Juan Agudelo, taking advantage of lax pressing and space between the centre-backs.
Points of Interest
This is the only meeting between the cross conference rivals this season. The two played out a 1-1 draw in Dallas last season, Loyd scored early with a brave header before Danny Koevermans drew TFC level with a cheeky flick of the right boot.
Toronto is winless in their last ten MLS matches against Dallas, stretching back to their first ever meeting at BMO Field in 2007 where the home side strolled to out 4-0 winners - still their record home win - on goals from Mo Edu, Danny Dichio - as the crowd were singing his name in the 24th minute no less, Carl Robinson and Jeff Cunningham.
In the 5 matches played previously in Toronto, Dallas has won twice, a 0-2 win in 2008 via a Kenny Cooper brace and in 2011 from a Shea strike.
The sides did also of course meet in the Champions league group stages in 2011, Dallas winning the hastily re-arranged replay 1-0 after a thunderstorm in Toronto, and TFC clinching qualification at Dallas' expense with a Joao Plata inspired 3-0 win down in Frisco.