Well that wasn’t as bad as feared - heading into the steam and mire of Houston, escaping with a valuable road point, extending the unbeaten streak to a whopping three matches, and managing to make it out of town without any Escobar-fueled escapades.
All well and good, but it only gets tougher from here; now that the thrill of the SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT has gone, the chill of Saturday’s match begins to creep.
It has been four weeks since TFC last took to the field at the Exhibition Grounds; yet another soul-sapping late draw, 1-1 with Philadelphia.
In that time there has been a slight turn: a win – fancy that; and a draw – alright, alright – one achieved without the need to concede a late equalizer even.
Houston was a team on a downswing; Salt Lake on the other hand are rolling.
A closer look at the enemy is in order.
Coach Jason Kreis, who along with general manager Garth Lagerway, recently admitted surprise at how little drop off they’ve seen - given the need for a drastic rebuild of the MLS Cup winning side that began with the trades of Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave, and Will Johnson in the offseason - has a plethora of options at his disposal, especially in attack.
Gone may be some of those bigger names from the past, but in have stepped a raft of young talents; though injury, international duty, and a trying schedule are troublesome, expect a strong eleven come the match.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Nick Rimando in goal; from right to left – Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Carlos Salcedo, and Chris Wingert across the backline; Kyle Beckerman holding in midfield with Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales, and Khari Stephenson further ahead; Robbie Findley and Joao Plata paired up top.
Starting at the top, any number of forwards could take those roles.
The Findley-Plata pairing has been preferred of late, what with Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio away for World Cup Qualifiers in recent weeks - and now heading off to the Gold Cup.
Toronto’s backline is not the quickest in the league and that combination of speed and guile, rather than a big body to battle with, will make them uncomfortable.
Findley played the first hour in their US Open Cup game on Wednesday and was replaced by Plata, meaning both should be relatively fresh come game time.
Colombian starlet, Olmes Garcia, is also available, but Kreis has preferred to work him in slowly and more often than not, as a substitute – seven of his ten appearances are from the bench. He only saw limited action on Wednesday and would be ready if called upon.
Rookie Devon Sandoval is another, much bigger option, who has seem his minutes dwindle after playing an integral role in May’s success – he is due for some more time.
Their attacking midfield options are a little thin at the moment, with Luis Gil away with at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey – with the US – leaving Sebastian Velasquez as the sole regular contributor available.
The likes of Enzo Martinez, Cole Grossman, and former TFC midfielder/defender Aaron Maund have seen very limited minutes.
Cuban destroyer Yordany Alvarez is a regular substitute – unless Beckerman is away in which case he deputizes – shoring up the match once the points are secured.
A minor injury crisis has limited their options at centre-back, nominal starter, Chris Schuler has been troubled by a lingering foot issue – described as foot pain – for the last month, while Kwame Watson-Siriboe suffered an ACL injury in a recent reserve match – last Thursday against USL PRO side Phoenix Wolves.
Salcedo, a nineteen year old Mexican defender, has been impressive, earning rave reviews from those who watch him closest for his ability on the ball, though he is, as a developing player, far from complete and consistent.
Real Salt Lake enter Saturday’s match as the in-form team in MLS – yes, Portland has their fancy little streak, but RSL have taken the most points from recent matches (thirteen to the Timbers eleven in the last five; nineteen to sixteen in the last eight and twenty-three to twenty-one in the last ten) – and having progressed to the Semifinal of the US Open Cup for the first time in their history.
They will be chartering into Toronto – to avoid any potential travel issues, which apparently have been an issue in the past – for their third match in a week and have another game – back home against Philadelphia – coming on Wednesday.
Salt Lake are currently tied for first place in the West – and the top spot in the league – with Portland, though Montreal has three games in hand and are only a point behind.
They arrive unbeaten in their last five league fixtures – four wins and a draw – stretching back to a loss away to Montreal on May 11, though those last four have been at home, where they’ve handily dispatch Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Jose in recent matches.
A 2-0 win over Seattle, on goals from Beckerman and Findley either side of half-time, was almost embarrassing for the Sounders, who were easily outmatched on both sides of the ball, managing a mere two attempts on goal.
Their 3-1 win over LA was similarly one-sided, though the Galaxy were in the match for a longer spell, eventually falling to a pair of late goals from Garcia, after Stephenson and Landon Donovan had exchanged strikes at the end of the first half.
Fortunately for Toronto, they have been nowhere near as dominant away from home, picking up losses to Colorado, Dallas, and DC as well as a draw in Vancouver.
Their most recent away match was a 1-4 dismantling of Chivas on the strength of a Grabavoy brace and strikes from Findley and Plata.
Their 3-2 loss in Montreal must be classed as a late collapse. They took the lead on an own-goal from Matteo Ferrari and a Kyle Beckerman goal in the 77th either side of a Felipe tally, only for Marco Di Vaio and Ferrari to find vengeance in the final ten minutes of the match.
It was a reversal of fortunes, with Salt Lake scoring twice – from Sandoval and Garcia - in the final fifteen minutes in New England three days earlier to steal the game after Ryan Guy had put the Revolution in front at the start of the first half.
It will be a big ask for Toronto to take full points against such a dominant opponent, but it’s not completely out of the equation.
Part Two will be up later today, going over the game film for how they score and how they are scored upon, as well as highlighting some points of interest.