Would it be wrong to call this game and next week's second leg the most important games of Toronto FC's season so far?
After only getting 7 points from the relatively easy first 7 games of the MLS season, my already low expectations of maybe being able to compete for a playoff spot as we rebuild under Aron Winter are now even lower. That's ok though, I can keep telling myself that TFC are rebuilding, that it's all about the future and there's continuing signs of hope here and there to keep me going until that glorious future finally arrives. But there's nothing that would make a mediocre league season, at least results wise, more palatable than a good cup run. If TFC can retain the Voyageurs Cup and qualify for the group stage of the Concacaf Champions League, it'll help give the 2011 season itself a purpose and make the league struggles much more tolerable.
Another reason these games are important is that fans may be accepting of defeats or poor performances against other MLS teams in the name of rebuilding, but against FC Edmonton? An expansion team in a league below us? Well, rightly or wrongly, and I'd say wrongly as Edmonton are a better side than that "NASLExpansion side" label suggests, that would be a whole new level of embarrassment piled on to TFC supporters' long suffering shoulders.
Aside from the avoidance of potential embarrassment and the fact that this is pretty much TFC's only hope of glory this season, there's also all the usual reasons the competition should matter, as eloquently explained here at the Whitecaps blog Eightysix Forever. National bragging rights, and a potential place in the Champions league group stages, with all the World Club Championship daydreaming that can lead to, are not things to be sniffed at, so I'm ready to say that for me, these two games are the most important of the season. How about you, would you rather be trying to win these games, or concentrating on the league?
I'll get into a preview of the first leg, and the hopeless task of trying to guess a line-up after the jump.
As I said earlier, Edmonton deserve better than the "NASLexpansion side" tag and will probably give Toronto a tough game. Though not officially joining a league until this year, they started building a squad last year and played a few friendly games here and there, getting some creditable results against teams such as English side Portsmouth. There's few recognisable names on the team, with the most familiar probably being Eddy Sidra, a Canadian international who should be fired up after feeling like he didn't really get a fair trial with TFC before this season, but they've had a decent start to the NASL season as well, winning 2 of the 3 games they've played so far, all away from home
Yes, that does mean that this will be their first ever official home game, so there should be a bit of extra hype and excitement to it, though the attendance probably won't be as high as it could have been. That's due to the start time, 6pm in Edmonton, presumably for the sake of the Toronto TV audience, which i think is an absolutely disgraceful decision given that this is their first ever game and a great chance to build some momentum with the local media and general public.
So, Edmonton are a decent team who'll be fired up and ready to go, so shouldn't be taken lightly, what sort of team will Winter put out? Of course it's not as simple as just thinking about this game, TFC are in the middle of a 7 games in 22 day stretch, have a few injured or just recovered players who probably won't fancy the plastic pitch at Commonwealth Stadium. Given all that, I think we'll see a mix of regular first teamers and reserves/academy kids, hopefully enough to be able to get a result this week so we can rest players for the return leg next week.
Exactly where those changes will be made is anyone's guess though it would make sense to see Alan Gordon and Adrian Cann given the night off to rest their injuries, and as well I'd expect Julian de Guzman's knee recuperation not to be risked with another plastic pitch game coming up in Seattle. I'd like to see Eckersley and Yourassowsky given the start at Right Back and Left Back, and I think Joao Plata could well get the start at Left Wing, he and Javier Martina could be a very exciting wing partnership.
That's a complete guess, I'd be surprised if even half of that line up is right, but I really hope Winter doesn't experiment too much. I think most fans would be willing to acccept it if we don't do all that well in the league this year, but going out of the Voyageurs Cup due to playing a B team would be a bitter pill to swallow. Winter's spoken many times of his admiration and respect for the fans, one way to show it would be to give them something to cheer about and do his best to make sure they retain Canadian bragging rights.