In a season that has so far been mostly fraught with futility, tomorrow's match against DC United is full of so much subtext that it almost overwhelms the game itself. Between Dwayne De Rosario, Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen, the amount of history between these two teams is staggering.
DCU is of course the club that Payne built and then surprisingly left during the off season to come to the great white north and take the reins of our not so storied club. While Payne has stated many times that he relishes the challenge of building a winner here in Toronto, you'd not be alone in wondering if he regretted that move considering how DC finished the 2012 season. That is until this season - DC are one of the few teams in MLS that are truly worse than TFC (we're not the worst!) and have had a rapid fall from grace. However, regardless of either club's form, Payne will want to see points on the board for our Reds in this match - if only as the most minor of signs that he made the right move.
Ryan Nelsen's history with DC is no less noteworthy. Nelsen was team captain, voted defender of the year, was on the league's best starting XI list and helped lead the team to it's fourth MLS Cup in 2004 - heady stuff! - before leaving to play in England. And while most of the players have changed, Nelsen was a popular player in his time in DC and of course is where he and Payne met. Do coaches get up for matches against their old clubs? Or is this just any old match for Nelsen?
But the name that has to come to everyone's mind the most is DeRo. Regardless of personal feelings about the king of shake and bake, DeRo is really the central figure to tomorrow's drama. Still a polarizing figure among TFC fans, DeRo always seems to find a way to hit the Reds where it hurts; by scoring goals. And not just any goals - oh no, they always have to be quality - sigh. Just as a reminder here's the video of his brace against Toronto last May in DC.
Doesn't that just get you even more excited for the match?
OK, so now that we've looked at all the subplots burbling up under the surface, it's time to address the fact that this game might actually turn out alright for our Reds. As mentioned above DC are not exactly playing well this season. OK, that's an understatement - they're terrible. They can't score (only six goals); they can't defend (having let in 24 goals) and they boast a lineup that is as injury ridden as TFC - with regular thorn in Toronto's side Chris Pontius the latest casualty - and has perhaps seen even more lineup tinkering than we've witnessed thus far this season.
They really have been awful and normally that would mean giddiness for this game - except of course it's our Reds and they're on the road - did I mention DeRo? He's had a rough season so far, having been relegated to the bench as Ben Olsen continues to try to find a starting XI that can bring results - that is until Wednesday night's USOC match against the Union. First game in weeks and what does he do? Oh nothing much really, he only scored a hat trick - fingers crossed that he used up all his goals but I'm not holding my breath. Remember that other hat trick he scored? Way back in August 2011? When they were down a man and they ended up tying? The tying goal coming in the 87th minute? You've blocked that from memory you say? Well here's a little reminder...
Back to blocking that from memory...but if we look at the progression, DeRo should really only score one goal tomorrow (3 in 2011, 2 in 2012)...hey, it makes as much sense as anything else.
Back to the positives! Toronto is coming off of one of it's best games of the season after their hard fought draw against the Union at the start of the month. OK, they again conceded a goal in the dying minutes of the game and there was that odd fan appeasing run out for Koef at the expense of an excellent effort from Jeremy Brockie and yes that was the same Union that DCU just trounced, come on I'm looking for the shining lights here!
What we did see in that game was the potential midfield unit going forward - Matias Laba, Jeremy Hall, Jonathan Osorio and Bobby Convey (also formerly of DCU) - working well together and showing more creativity than we've seen in the midfield all season. With the spark and energy that Osorio seems to bring to every match and with Convey on the wing as a true wide player, there are finally some decent options in the middle of the park for the Reds.
The team has had two weeks off in which to practice, rest, heal and did I mention practice? The only notable absences for TFC tomorrow will be captain Darren O'Dea, who while back from international duty for Ireland is being reported as out with an illness and Doneil Henry who is suspended for this match. The rest of the walking wounded are still on the sidelines and it is still an unknown as to whether or not Danny Koevermans will get actually playing time instead of just a run out to appease the fans (still irritated by that sub).
With Henry and O'Dea out, and Califf still in limbo, look for Gale Agboussomonde to get his first start in over a month and for Ashtone Morgan to be given yet another chance to show he's regained some of his form from last year. The big question is who will be paired with Robert Earnshaw. Dry spell or no, he is going to be starting and as his loan has been extended until the end of the season expectations for his productivity remain high.
Hopefully he has had the "please pass the ball Earny" convo and has gained some trust for some of his newer teammates in the past two weeks. Do we see Jeremy Brockie build off his bright play from two weeks ago or does Luis Silva get another start in hopes that a more fluid midfield allows him to perform better. This is a very exploitable DC defense that is decimated by injuries and lacking experience due to said injuries. Earnshaw's experience and speed should come into play.
Avoiding late goals, and defensive marking, especially from set pieces will of course be the key for this game - woe be to the player that doesn't stay firmly glued to DeRo or rookie Kyle Porter during the inevitable set pieces. Let me say that again - do NOT leave DeRo unmarked - ever. I feel like this should be scrawled all over Toronto's locker room in neon letters with flashing lights.
If there was ever a game in which TFC should earn at least a point, it's this one. Drama, DeRo and defensive meltdowns aside - this is not a team (much like TFC) that should scare any opposition. A result of some kind is there for the taking. As for entertainment, well sometimes crap plus crap just equals crap, especially with that 'league's worst' tag waiting to be pinned to the loser.
But let's hope we get exactly the opposite; that the chance to get away from MLS's musty basement inspires them all to playing like they might know what they're doing. Add in the high probability of comic defending and sloppy play that should lead to plenty of chances for both sides, not to mention all that subtext of returning heroes and vengeful castoffs - hell this just might be a game that's well worth watching.