Going in to the season, you'd have been forgiven for looking at the schedule and thinking that this was when things got a bit easier for Toronto FC. That with 2 away games, Sporting Kansas City and LA Galaxy at home, there'd be a sigh of relief at seeing the better result opportunity that FC Dallas would surely represent.
Well, not so much. Dallas come into Saturday's game on a high, literally top of the table with 4 wins out of 5 games, so there'll be no relaxing here, though as pointed out earlier in James' Know your enemy, it hasn't really been the toughest schedule to get them to that point. There's all sorts of precedent for Dallas' good run to continue as well; 2007 was the last time TFC got a win in this fixture, Kenny Cooper scores goals against TFC for fun, and if for some reason he can't do it, well they've also got Eric Hassli. The latest player TFC sent to rot in the heat, Hassli hasn't really seen much playing time so far this year as he gets back to full fitness, making just a few sub appearances. Give him a chance though and he showed when at Vancouver that he loved to score against TFC, the more spectacular the better. If he comes on as a late sub, especially if TFC have a lead to cling to, then start holding your breath.
That whole desperately clinging on to a late goal thing has been how TFC have seen out the last 2 home games of course, and though they've conceded in the last 15 minutes of both of those games, lost one lead and came very close to losing another, in a way it's a good sign. At least we've been in a position to have a lead to throw away, which is a good starting point, hopefully at some point we can take that next step and actually hold on to wins regularly, or even start stealing points.
The chances of being in that position, and being able to do it successfully took a hit with the news from training today. It was confirmed (seems like the fantasy league injury report actually broke the news) that Terry Dunfield's out for this game (and maybe more depending on the results of tests) with a knee injury. Possibly the most divisive player on the team, whose presence on the field holds us back/inspires us, tomorrow we'll get the chance to judge his impact by seeing what happens without him.
I'd generally be fine with that, but with Torsten Frings, Julio Cesar and Matt Stinson all released, with varying degrees of fanfare, the defensive midfielder stock is now looking pretty threadbare. There's Jeremy Hall, which is thrilling for everyone that he's the one solid choice now, and then a whole bunch of question marks.
Kyle Bekker, or Jonathan Osorio? Could work, though both lack in experience and defensive expertise.
Darel Russell? He didn't impress at right back last week, but a big part of that was that he looked like he'd rather be in midfield, maybe putting him there would be a good idea. At the very least he does bring experience.
Ryan Richter. He seems like the Dan Gargan, Jeremy Hall, jack of all trades type that could slot into that position and do an alright job. He continues to get good reviews from training session, maybe he can have a go there.
The other option of course would be to go with a less defensive midfield, bring Luis Silva in instead and tilt the balance a bit towards the attacking side. Nelsen's talked a lot though about building a foundation, getting the basics of defence right first, so I think that's unlikely. Silva may well find his way into one of the attacking spots, if he's fully fit I'd love to see him in there, but there'll probably still be those 2 defensive midfielders in front of the back 4.
Whether the formation changes or not, Silva seems an obvious candidate for the spot behind Earnshaw that Hogan Ephraim's been underwhelming in. Ephraim's been getting the old Julian de Guzman 'he needs better players around him' line to explain his lack of impact on games so far, and that might well be true. However it happens, whether Silva on the left and Ephraim in the middle, or Ephraim getting shuffled out to the left, I'd rather see Reggie Lambe be the one who ends up on the bench, we know what he can do and it's generally not much.
The back 4 brings up the other big question of the week. Danny Califf's been resting during training with the flu, but I'm sure he'll be good to go again alongside Darren O'Dea. Out wide, well Richard Eckersley will be somewhere, but where exactly, and who'll be the other full back? Will Ashtone Morgan be brought back from the naughty spot? Will Richter be the next player given the chance to stake a claim to a regular spot? If so, on which side?
At the front and back, there's some welcome certainty. Joe Bendik will be in goal again and Robert Earnshaw will be up front. Dallas have looked a bit shaky and easily pressured into mistakes at the back so hopefully Earnshaw can get himself another gift of a chance.
Ideally though, TFC won't be relying on that and can create some chances from their own imagination. If they can do that and maintain their defensive focus there's a chance of coming out of this with a good result. I'll say a 1-1 draw, Hassli with a belter in the last 5 minutes.