That went by incredibly fast, eh?
Look away for a second and before one knows it, MLS is back and Toronto FC returns from the World Cup break for a match on Friday night in New York.
It has been nearly three weeks since Toronto last took to the pitch in competitive action, seeing out a 1-0 win over San Jose at home on 7 June, but a nice little friendly with USL PRO affiliates the Wilmington Hammerheads, means they should not be too rusty, while the extra rest, for a side that has had their fair share of injury troubles, was more than welcome.
But now, it’s time to get back to work.
The first phase of the season can be termed a success – a touch underwhelming, yes, but good enough to remain firmly ensconced in the middle of the tables. With their peculiar schedule of repeated bye-weeks, TFC have played the fewest matches in the league.
On one hand that is good, plenty of room to grow, but on the other, these last four months of the season – and the next month in particular – will determine success or failure on their stated goal of reaching the playoffs for the first time ever.
Brace for the next 38 days, as the club has nine league matches and a friendly against Tottenham on the docket, culminating in a road trip to Montreal, before August brings a hint of relief with a return to weekly forays of action.
New York will have made the most of the break as well, though how rested they will return is a matter for debate. Things have not been rosy in the Big Apple – as their refusal to acknowledge a US Open Cup derby against the New York Cosmos ended in embarrassment.
But still, as TFC’s record against them implies, New York must be taken seriously – a closer week at this round’s enemy, New York Red Bull, is in order.
Since the two last met resulting in a 2-0 TFC win at home, New York fell into a slide – losing three straight and going without a win in four. They rebounded with a draw in Kansas City (snapping the losing streak, but continuing the winless one) before entering the break with a surprising and historic win in New England.
Red Bull has been a team that excelled at home and faltered on the road, but the last two months has seen a reversal.
Prior to losing to TFC, they fell by the odd goal at home to Chicago in that scintillating nine-goal thriller; they would follow up those two-straight defeats with a third, as Portland came into town and left with the full points. Bradley Wright-Phillips put the hosts in front after 36 minutes, but a brace from Max Urruti, scoring in the final minute of the first half and again in the 74th, overturned the result.
Just three days later, in a bizarre Tuesday night match, the sagging Bulls looked doomed, heading into Kansas City for a match against Sporting KC. It took KC just nine minutes to open the scoring as Antonio Dovale, or Toni as he seems to prefer, beat Luis Robles with a tidy left-footer through a crowd from the top of the area.
A weekend off would follow before New York took to the road once more, facing another daunting challenge with a trip to high-flying New England. The Revolution had not lost to New York at Gillette Stadium since 2002, when they were still known as the Metro Stars.
Consider that for a moment, 2002. For a league as young as MLS, that is forever.
But the Revolution had tripped up the previous week with a loss at Montreal, snapping their five-game winning streak, and New York were able to overturn their colonial opponents, 0-2 with goals from Eric Alexander and Peguy Luyindula, fifteen minutes in and then fifteen from the end, though Robles was called upon to repeatedly keep his side in the game – and that is without their World Cup participants, as well as Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave, who do not play on turf.
Aside – New England had laid grass for the Portugal-Mexico world cup warmup they hosted (match to finally determine who the greatest team), but opted to tear it up in favour of the greasy, concrete; gamesmanship back-fire.
To summarize, a team that is known for struggling away from home is unbeaten in two away – and to rather difficult opponents at that, while their usually strong home form has evaporated, leaving them losers of two-straight.
The World Cup break was not overly kind to New York, who were drawn against local rivals, the New York Cosmos for a fourth round clash in the US Open Cup.
To be kind, it was an awkward occurrence, with New York (the MLS one) doing their utmost to underplay what should have been a monumental clash. They fielded a relatively strong side – though Henry was away broadcasting from Brazil for the BBC – only to get dismantled in a 3-0 loss that left many of their fans dismayed.
The excuse of needing to prioritize the league, or that they are opting to focus on the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League instead, rung hollow – though they did sound strangely familiar.
17 May: Toronto 2 – New York 0
Toronto and New York met slightly over a month ago on the shores of Lake Ontario, where the home-side strolled out 2-0 winners on goals from Jermain Defoe and Luke Moore.
TFC took the lead after twelve minutes when an errant pass from Kosuke Kimura was gobbled up by Bradley Orr, who burst up-field and threaded in Defoe with a lovely ball inside the left-back, caught out of position by the turnover. Defoe finished with a thunderous right-footer high to the top right corner past Robles.
Toronto failed to add to their lead and New York nearly found a breakthrough - were it not for an epic miss from Wright-Phillips, they most definitely would have.
Spared the ignominy of an equalizer, TFC sealed the result late in stoppage-time when a long Joe Bendik goal-kick bounced high, allowing Moore to feint a challenging leap with Robles and Chris Duvall. The two New York defenders collided and the loose ball spilled to Moore, who walked his first MLS goal over the goal-line for his new side.
The win snapped New York’s ten-match unbeaten run against TFC and sparked a still-intact four-match unbeaten run for the Canadian side.
Mike Petke has kept a pretty regular lineup, injury, suspension, and playing surface allowing, throughout the season.
Red Bull will welcome back Jamison Olave and Thierry Henry – who missed their last match due to the joint-jarring nature of Gillette’s Astroturf. Henry promised to not miss any league action because of this TV stint, but how much training he has managed to do – and whether he will have acquired any rust, remains to be seen. That said, he is still Henry.
Tim Cahill has returned from his exploits south of the equator, but whether he will factor from the off or off the bench is unclear – he’ll be raring to go after being forced to miss Australia’s final match due to yellow card accumulation.
Roy Miller is still enjoying his Brazilian adventure with tournament upstarts, Costa Rica, so he will not be available, while Dax McCarty looks unlikely to be included, still nursing a knee injury picked up against Kansas City prior to the break.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Luis Robles in goal; from right to left – Chris Duvall, Jamison Olave, Armando, and Kosuke Kimura across the back; through the midfield Lloyd Sam, Eric Alexander, Peguy Luyindula, and Jonny Steele; while Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry resume their strike partnership.
There are a number of possible options at Petke’s disposal. Ibrahim Sekagya is a very useful defender and with McCarty out he took up the defensive midfielder’s role against New England in their last league match. Should New York desire a little steel in the centre of the park, he could slot in for Luyindula, freeing up Alexander to surge forward.
Matt Miazga, a highly-touted young centre-back made his first career MLS start that same match against the Revolution, but it is unlikely he would displace either Armando or Olave.
On the back-line a pair of former Reds could play a role, but neither Bobby Convey, nor Richard Eckersley have found a regular place in the side; Convey will occasionally be fielded on the left-side of midfield, but Steele looks to get the nod.
Luyindula gives them a good passing range from the attacking midfield position, but if Cahill is ready to go, he could take that spot instead; the Aussie provides a little more grit, so it would depend on how they intend to play.
Not many of their fringe players have found a lot of minutes this season. Rubin Bover has probably gotten the most; he’s a dynamic midfielder, while Conor Lade has been limited in minutes since breaking onto the scene in style a few years back. They, along with Andre Akpan, are likely to be glued to the bench.
As always when facing New York, one must keep a close eye on Henry.
He has shown a real proficiency at setting up chances, rather than getting on the end of them this year. He has five assists already this season and can be a force, just watch how he single-handedly slices through Sporting from deep to craft this equalizer from Wright-Phillips:
That burst of pace through the middle absolutely burns the usually solid KC side and his ball fillets their defenses. It is easy to forget that for all his skill and panache, he is also a physical presence – TFC will have their hands full with a rejuvenated Henry.
Toronto will have to be cautious about conceding free-kicks on the attacking left, as both of New York’s goals in New England came from just such a situation.
The first was a consequence of Andy Dorman and Bobby Shuttleworth getting tangled up as Sam hit a curling ball to the back-post for Alexander to nod in with a free header.
The second, a screamer on the half-volley from Luyindula inside the arc, after the Revolution failed to properly clear the ball after Steele lofted in the service:
TFC must be cognizant of that danger and be sure to effectively clear their lines. New York has the individual talent to make sure mistakes cost.
It would be wise for Toronto to come out of the gates with authority. New York has conceded inside the first fifteen minutes in two of their last four matches – both ended as losses – and have allowed six in that period on the season.
They are similarly vulnerable at the start of the second, where they have conceded five – eleven of the 22 goals allowed, a full half, have come in the first third of halves (apologies for all the numeric confusion there).
One of those goals was Defoe’s opener in the last meeting and that is a tactic that TFC should look to exploit – catching New York’s slow back-line out of position on turnovers – Kimura in particular has been shaky this year.
Toronto has not made enough use of their threat from quick transitions, getting the ball up to Defoe quickly, isolating him on a defender to make use of his skills. It is something they must do a better job of in their second half of the campaign.
Robles has been fantastic, one of the best in the league, but he has shown a weakness on shots from distance – most likely because with such a wall of centre-backs in front of him, he cannot properly see what is coming:
Note how KC’s Toni uses the run of Dom Dwyer and two defenders to screen his attempts, preventing Robles from getting a track on his low drive from range – those shots that skip as they reach the keeper are the stuff of nightmares.
Defoe is due on of those quick turn and shoot chances, while Jonathan Osorio operates in that sort of space quite well – dare it be said, Gilberto needs to start hitting shots whenever he gets a look, one is bound to find the back of the net.
New York currently sits in fifth place in the East on eighteen points from fifteen matches, one point behind TFC in fourth.
This is the second of three meetings this season – their final encounter is on 11 October in New York.
New York has dominated the all-time series, winning ten of nineteen meetings and drawing four others. At home they have won seven of eight matches by a combined score of 17-1, including two five-nil blowouts.
Red Bull has won the last five in the New York suburbs (read: Jersey), with TFC’s last, and only, win coming back in 2008, 1-3, courtesy of a Chad Barrett brace and another from Ibby Ibrahim. Dane Richards scored New York’s only goal.
For the extra studious, the Know Your Enemy’s from the last meeting – Parts One and Two