Disappointed from their midweek loss to Montreal in the Voyageurs Cup, Toronto FC must collect themselves and brace for a physical contest on the weekend, hosting San Jose at BMO Field.
The extra commitments complicit in wining the Canadian Championship may well have been an unwanted distraction, with TFC focused on making the playoffs the season, but still, losing to Montreal is never a comfortable turn of events.
This will be their last match before the league breaks for the World Cup. It is important to enter this pause on a high note, given what comes after – a grueling spell of ten matches in 38 days, including that awkwardly-timed Friendly against Tottenham.
Due to a bizarre schedule that has seen them use up all of their bye-weeks in the first three months of the campaign, Toronto will have to take all that has been learned and find a measure of consistency.
Though they have currently played the fewest matches of any MLS side, Toronto’s points-per-game has them ranked in the top three in the East and top six in the league – should that form hold, they will indeed achieve their stated goal.
But enough of that looking ahead; there is a match to be played.
And what of their opponents?
A closer look at the San Jose Earthquakes is in order.
In his first full season as head coach, former Canadian International, Mark Watson, has struggled to field a consistent side: Injuries, suspensions, and international duty have hampered their form, after a rather dramatic off-season rebuild.
The retirement of MLS Original Ramiro Corrales headlined the departures, though trades of Justin Morrow (to TFC), Steven Beitashour (to Vancouver), and Marvin Chavez (to Colorado – he has since moved on to Chivas) were more surprising moves, as they were some of their top performers of recent seasons.
The same could be said of midfield stalwart Rafael Baca, who was transferred to Cruz Azul of Liga MX. The enigmatic and oft-injured Mehdi Ballouchy saw his contract expire – he too landed in Vancouver, while, of interest to TFC fans, Dan Gargan and Nana Attakora had their contract options declined.
With so many holes to fill, Watson opted for a wise strategy of mixing proven MLS talent with a few select international additions – that they won a weighted-lottery (for Billy Schuler), selected yet another solid draft pick (JJ Koval), and signed a very promising homegrown talent (Tommy Thompson) were pleasant bonuses.
Long-time MLS watchers will be familiar with names like Atiba Harris, Brandon Barklage, Shaun Francis, and Khari Stephenson, but it was the signing of Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, formerly of AC Ajaccio in France that heralded a more global playbook.
It was the continuation of a trend: pulling in very experienced players from around the world, following in the tradition of additions such as Jordan Stewart, Victor Bernardez, and Walter Martinez (to name but a few) over the past seasons.
Then just days before the start of the season, German defender Andres Gorlitz was another such example – unfortunately, he has suffered an ACL injury since; the acquisition of Yannick Djalo, on loan from Portuguese side, SL Benfica, took the pattern to a whole new level.
Long-term and nagging injuries to Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, a formidable forward tandem, have left them largely sidelined for large stretches of the season, while World Cup commitments for Chris Wondolowski and Victor Bernardez will see them away this weekend – Clarence Goodson, has also missed some time, but is available having been left off the US squad.
Despite those struggles Watson seems to have found something fruitful in recent weeks, as a slight midfield adjustment has seen the side take points from three of their last four matches.
It is likely that he will persist with something similar come Saturday.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Jon Busch in goal; from right to left – Shaun Francis, Ty Harden, Clarence Goodson, and Jordan Stewart across the back-line; through the midfield Atiba Harris, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Khari Stephenson, and Shea Salinas; with Yannick Djalo playing slightly off the shoulder of Steven Lenhart.
It is a little peculiar that there is no room for Sam Cronin in that lineup – he has been fantastic for the side since joining from Toronto and no doubt they will find him some time in the future.
Should Djalo (who wears Dja’ on his back), not be fit – he has been hampered by recurring hamstring issues since joining – one of Alan Gordon (another former Red), Koval, Schuler, or Adam Jahn, the rookie who impressed last season, but has not featured much this season could take that place alongside Lenhart, though none possess the same skill-set as the tricky Guinea-Bissau-born Portuguese.
Francis is more natural at left-back and Barklage has done a solid job when tasked as right-back – Watson will likely determine who gets the start based on how this week’s training has gone.
Cordell Cato, a former Seattle Sounder, has looked lively in his action with the side, providing a more fleet-footed, if less-physical, option than Harris – again, training and tactics will determine which gets the start.
San Jose currently sit in seventh place in the Western Conference on sixteen points from twelve matches with a record of four wins, four draws, and four losses. They have scored fifteen goals and conceded thirteen.
Their season began slowly – with a bye week, followed by their quarterfinal CONCACAF Champions League tie against Toluca – they drew both legs 1-1, including a heroic effort down in Mexico, only to lose 5-4 on penalty kicks in some high drama.
They played their first MLS match in-between the two-legged series, drawing 3-3 at home to Salt Lake with a rousing comeback; such has become their trademark, after falling behind 1-3, with a pair of goals from centre-back Bernardez.
They would lose their next two matches – away to Kansas City and back home against New England – and then draw two more – home to Columbus and away to Colorado – before picking up their first win at the end of April at home against Chivas USA – 1-0 on a tidy finish from Djalo.
A 3-2 loss would follow in their next outing at Vancouver, falling behind by three goals in the first twenty minutes. Wondolowski would draw one back from the penalty spot before half-time and find another in second half stoppage-time, but it was too little, too late.
That was followed by a midweek scoreless draw and a 2-1 win over Dallas, both at home, surviving a 45th minute red card to Salinas. Cato opened the scoring in the 25th and Dallas forward David Texeira would bumble a San Jose corner kick into his own goal for the second. Michel responded with a free-kick, but the Earthquakes would see out the result.
With both Salinas and Bernardez suspended the following week and Goodson and Wondolowski in camp with the American side, a bare-bones side (they could dress only five substitutes) went into Seattle to face the in-form Sounders.
A very solid outing, given the circumstances, the Earthquakes would only be undone by an eighth minute wonder-strike from Obafemi Martins - an audacious chip that left San Jose keeper, Busch, shaking his head in disbelief.
They followed that with their best performance of the season, putting the sword to Houston, rolling out 3-0 winners on a brace from Stephenson and a Harris strike.
And most recently, in a rematch against Dallas, another red card would prove fateful, as the early dismissal of Adam Moffat helped the visiting Earthquakes come back from an early Blas Perez strike through Harris and Pierazzi, who scored his MLS goal with a long-range bomb.
Part Two will be posted later today, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses