After what seems like an eternity, but was actually just two weeks, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Saturday with a match against Eastern Conference foes, the New England Revolution.
It has been a peculiar start to the season - off on opening weekend, most matches away and against non-conference opponents, and so on. And that lack of rhythm will continue for the foreseeable future – with another free weekend coming up, as well as the Voyageurs Cup adorning the calendar midweek for the next two weeks at least.
Then comes the break for the World Cup, before the season actually begins in earnest on June 27.
What a strange way to start the season – though Los Angeles’ may be stranger, with CONCACAF Champions League and back-to-back matches so as to have only met three different teams and played just five matches thus far. Oh those wacky schedule makers.
The break, however, was a welcome quirk for TFC, who used the time to rest their tired and strained bones (and hamstrings); the side looks fit, perhaps able to field their first team for just the second time this season – depending on how Michael Bradley’s foot has progressed after his mysterious procedure.
Either way, they will be facing a New England side that has begun to find their footing after a slow start to the season.
A closer look at this week’s enemy is in order.
While most MLS sides were busy with the annual roster sweep, Jay Heaps, in his third season in charge of the club, merely tinkered, adjusting for those who left with select replacements.
The biggest loss without question was Juan Agudelo, who departed for Europe – on loan at FC Utrecht from Stoke City, after his UK work permit case failed. His replacement, a familiar, if spitefully forgotten name – Teal Bunbury, acquired from Sporting KC via trade, with a 2015 First Round pick and allocation money headed in the other direction.
Long-time goalkeeper Matt Reis retired and took up a coaching position with LA, while former Vancouver – and one time Revolution keeper – Brad Knighton returned to the club, to back-up Bobby Shuttleworth, who had taken the starting position from Reis.
Gone were Chad Barrett, Juan Toja, and Clyde Simms – in their place Charlie Davies, Daigo Kobayashi (another former Whitecap), and a handful of SuperDraft picks, namely forward Patrick Mullins and midfielder/wide attacker Steven Neumann, though neither has really featured much thus far.
And recently they announced that club legend Shalrie Joseph re-signed with the club, though when he will be fit and ready to contribute has yet to be determined.
There was a little drama to their off-season, as captain and stalwart centre-back, Jose Goncalves, was rumoured to be unhappy with his new contract and struggled to show his quality through their opening match. He was mysteriously absent before returning in game three, imperious again, as if nothing ever happened.
Injury has kept the dominant defender from their last two matches and his status for Saturday is currently unknown, while Kelyn Rowe too missed out, nursing a hamstring that has seen him garner few minutes this year.
Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Bobby Shuttleworth in goal; from right to left – Darrius Barnes, Andrew Farrell, AJ Soares, and Chris Tierney across the back; Andy Dorman sitting in front of the back-four with Sair Sene, Lee Nguyen, Daigo Kobayashi, and Diego Fagundez through the midfield, and Teal Bunbury as the lone forward atop the formation.
Heaps has plenty of options at his disposal, should he choose to mix things up a bit for Saturday.
Honduran forward Jerry Bengtson has struggled to find his scoring boots in MLS – with just four goals in his 34 appearances in three seasons. Last weekend against Kansas City, Heaps went with Bengtson up top and put Bunbury on the right flank to put a little more firepower on the pitch – it ended up working, but not until late, after Bengtson had been subbed off.
Davies and Mullins have been largely limited to substitute roles, but should play minor roles on Saturday.
Should Rowe be fit, he could take up one of the central midfield positions - more likely for Kobayashi, given the familiarity between Rowe and Nguyen.
Scott Caldwell, a homegrown rookie last season, has lost his starting stopper spot to the more physical and experienced Dorman, and the addition of Joseph will see even more competition for that defensive midfield role.
At the back, should Goncalves be good to go, expect Farrell to return to his right-back position and Soares to shift over to the right centre-back spot. Kevin Alston and Stephen McCarthy provide cover and spot duty at left-back and in the centre, respectively, when called upon.
New England enter Saturday’s match in good form, riding a three-game unbeaten run with home wins over Houston and Kansas City either side of a draw at Chicago, having scored five goals through those matches.
Goal-scoring has been an issue for them, kicking off the season without a goal through 305 minutes of play, suffering a 4-0 blowout in Houston on opening day, a 1-0 loss at Philadelphia before drawing 0-0 against Vancouver in their home opener.
When that goal finally did come, 35 minutes into their match at San Jose, it was courtesy of a spectacular own-goal from Victor Bernardez – their first goal proper would come nearly an hour later, a controversial stoppage-time from Nguyen after a quickly taken free-kick by Davies, with the ball still moving, caught the Earthquakes sluggish.
A week on they would return to their losing ways away from home, falling 2-0 to a resurgent DC United an horrid own-goal of his own from Goncalves and an injury-time finish from Chris Rolfe.
Rebounding from that loss at home, they would avenge opening day humiliation, with a 2-0 win over Houston on goals from Alston and Bengtson, kicking off the three-match unbeaten run.
The streak was nearly cut short in Chicago, were Nguyen responded from the spot after Quincy Amarikwa put the Fire in front. Chicago had a glorious chance to take the full points with a 91st minute penalty kick after Alston handled on the line, but Juan Luis Anangono’s spot kick was saved by Shuttleworth.
And this past weekend, what looked to be a scoreless draw turned on a red card to Aurelien Collin – harshly dismissed for a lunging challenge on Fagundez – with Bunbury and Nguyen, again from the spot after an Uri Rosell handball, scoring in stoppage-time to steal the victory.
The Revolution currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference on eleven points from eight matches – seven on those points have come from their three home matches, where they have yet to concede a goal. On the road however, they have lost three of five matches, conceding nine goals in the process.
Part Two of the preview will review the game film for strengths and weaknesses and highlight some points of interest.