Earlier today I was thinking to myself what would be a fitting way to contribute to the hype in the build up to this game. I mean at this stage is it even possible for me to say something that would make you more excited about Tuesday night's game at Pizza Hut Park? The best idea that I could find was to write the biggest match preview ever to go with the BIGGEST game ever. We have already looked back at how TFC got to this stage and had a lovely interview with an FC Dallas blogger but now it is time to get down to brass tacks.
At this stage is almost impossible to over hype this game. Even if Duncan might have suggested that it was not even the biggest game of the season the fact is that for TFC fans it has never gotten any bigger then this. It has been five years since we got our own MLS team in Toronto and besides a few Voyageurs Cup successes the rest has been a series of failures spiced up with a few near misses. Last season Toronto FC came up 2 point shy of advancing from the CCL group stage and this time around that just will not be good enough for many fans. I do agree with Daune Rollins over at CSN though when he said that losing this game would not make the season a failure since the team is clearly better now then they were last year. The fact that TFC has even made it to the point where they are playing a must win game in a tough champions league group goes to show that the improvement is there. Now we just have to see if they have improved enough to play beat an FC Dallas team that is heading to the MLS playoffs and has recently rediscovered its form.
So after the jump we will break down what to expect from both teams and what it will take for Toronto to come away with that win we all want so badly.
The best place to start with breaking down this game is by looking at the expected lineup for TFC. With Winter managing to rest a number of key players for either part or all of the Union game Toronto should be able to field close to a full strength starting 11. The one question mark remains Richard Eckersley who has not been ruled out of the game yet and he is with the club down in Frisco. I am getting the feeling that it will be touch and go for Ecks right up until kickoff time but if there is any way that he can get on that field and play I expect him to do so. The problem is that Winter will be under extra pressure to rush Eckersley back since this is the last meaningful game of the season and, given Matt Stinson's suspension there isn't really any other options at right back, at least natural right backs that is, and Doneil Henry looked unconvincing there against Philadelphia. For the sake of being as optimistic as possible I am going to hope that Ecks is able to go tomorrow night and at least give the team solid minutes while his leg holds up.
The rest of the lineup is pretty much a given unless you think that Winter might pull a surprise and go with Stefan Frei in goal. Frei may be the teams best keeper but the problem is that he has hardly played the past couple of months, largely due to an injury he picked up, and his last start was the 3-0 defeat at Chivas USA which was back on September 24th. That means that Frei has been without game time for nearly a month now which in my eyes means there is no chance he gets the start in Frisco. For keepers it is crucial to be getting consistent playing time so that they can keep their confidence levels high and remain sharp. At the moment that only applies to Milos Kocic who despite his one big mistake in the Philadelphia Union game has been solid of late.
So how will the players line up in front of Kocic? Well considering the last two times that Toronto played with only 4 in the back line they conceded 4 goals against Pumas and 3 against Chivas I doubt that Winter will be foolish enough to try that again. That means that Toronto will likely once again sacrifice the impact of Torsten Frings on the midfield so that he can be used to shore up the backline. I think that most fans would agree with me that this is a fair trade off as it is hard to win games if your defenders are unable to stop the other team. So the back five will likely be in place once again with Ashtone Morgan, Ty Harden, Torsten Frings, Andy Iro, and hopefully Richard Eckersley. They will all need to be on the top of their games though to try and stop the likes of Martin Chavez and the always dangerous Brek Shea.
In front of the back four we should see De Guzman once again playing as the anchor in the midfield. He was given Saturday off to allow him to rest up after playing a key role for Canada over the international break. That should help out considering that Julian has been logging a whole lot of minutes for club and country in recent months and has looked out of gas on several occasions. He should now be fresh and ready to go for this match which is great news for TFC considering that in this tactic he is left on a bit of an island many times. When TFC looks to counter attack it is often JDG who is charged with making that first key pass to start the team heading down field. He will also be responsible for providing cover for Frings as it is likely that JDG will be the only real ball winner in the midfield now.
In front of DeGuzman we should see Peri Marosevic playing attacking midfielder since once again Eric Avila is not available. Both midfielders are former Dallas players and will have a fair bit of knowledge of the opposition which could prove helpful for TFC. That is why I expect Marosevic to start tomorrow ahead of Terry Dunfield. Along with the fact that Peri brings a lot more going forward than Dunfield does and with 5 at the back a second deep lying midfielder does not make sense to me. Marosevic will act as support for an attacking group that will almost certainly consist of Jaoa Plata, Danny Koevermans, and Ryan Johnson. The return of Plata from injury for the Philly game is a huge boost for the club as he is a large upgrade over Nick Soolsma. Soolsma has done well for the club this season but he does not have the pace to really trouble defenders but Plata does have just that. Plata and Johnson will be counted on to get up in support of Danny K as often as they can as well as make runs that will provide width and create more space for the big Dutch striker. In a game where chances may be quite limited these four attacking players will need to be at their very best. The good news is that Ryan Johnson got on the score sheet last time out with a goal of the week candidate (vote for him here) Danny Koevermans has been lethal in front of goal since joining the Reds, Plata has played a key role in getting the team to this point despite missing time through injury, and Marosevic scored the crucial goal last time Toronto was in CCL action against Pumas.
So this is how I expect TFC to lineup:
(Dave's having computer problems, so from here on in, it's Duncan. 2 for the price of 1, you lucky bastards!) As for Dallas, well I'd expect to see them going for the win tonight as while a draw definitely eliminates Toronto, there's a chance that it could eliminate Dallas as well, as it would leave the door open for a Tauro win on Wednesday to knock them out. I wouldn't suggest Pumas would deliberately throw that game, but if either team wins tonight then Pumas needs at least a point, whereas if it's a tie, all Pumas needs to do is avoid losing by 8. They've shown a willingness to throw the kids out there when they think they can get the job done, so I'd expect a much weaker lineup from them in that scenario, and tauro are no pushover, aside from their games against Toronto, they're undefeated, so they could well take advantage and knock both MLS clubs out.
Dallas won't want to take that chance, so even with the chance to claim 3rd in the Western Conference on the weekend, I'd expect a full strength line up. Jair Benitez won't be able to play at Left Back due to suspension, and neither will Fabian Castillo play as he's also suspended, while like Eric Avila, Maicon Santos is cup tied, so there's a few unavailable options for them. Unfortunately that still leaves them with plenty of good options, ones that have clicked back into form after the international break.
Jackson, Marvin Chavez and Brek Shea will all prove problematic going forward, George John is back in defence after his Blackburn adventure fell through, and he and Ugo Ihemelu won't be giving up many chances at all, and Kevin Hartman will be in goal, and despite his pie eating exploits, we've yet to score against him at all this year.
All in all it's going to be tough, I think any success we have going forward is going to come down the wings, Plata's affinity for cutting inside from the Left Wing will require strong support and overlapping from Ashtone Morgan, and in that respect I'm fairly confident. Right Wing is much more of a question mark though, which is a real shame with Benitez out. If Eckersley is fit, which despite Dave's optimism I highly doubt, then he'll really help out there, but if not, Doneil Henry isn't going to be that much help to whoever's on the wing. Personally I'd expect Marosevic to start at Right Wing, with Ryan Johnson at the AM spot, as Right Wing is the one spot he's been tried at that Johnson hasn't impressed. It's a bit harsh on Nick Soolsma, but I think we'll need all the secondary scoring threats we can get out there behind Koevermans and in that respect Marosevic is much better.
Defensively, well we've got to hope for more of the same really, a repeat performance of the games against Philadelphia, New York, Pumas where we absorbed pressure and didn't give up too many real chances. Then we've got to hope for great goalkeeping from Milos Kocic, and also cut out the mistakes or defensive breakdowns that undid the good work and led to goals in all those 3 games. It's a bit much to expect defensive perfection though, so hopefully we'll get the bit of luck we need to ensure that the good defensive effort is fully rewarded.
I think the key for Toronto will be to keep the game tight early on, if we go a goal down early and have to chase the game, then i think it could end up getting ugly with another of those heavy losses we've been sporadically having all year as Dalllas will burn us on the break. If we can keep it at 0-0 for as long as possible, eventually we'll get a chance from somewhere, if that chance can fall to Danny Koevermans, there's a very good chance he'll bury it. If it gets to the last 15 minutes or so and we still need a goal, then I'd suggest change things around to a more attacking formation, but not much earlier than that.
There's a lot of things that will have to go right at both ends of the pitch for TFC to win, and very little room for error. It's unlikely, but possible. I want to say I'm confident, but I can't help but think that it's going to be another frustrating and heartbreaking night as TFC grab the lead, but fail to hold on and end up tying 1-1.