So after three games with mixed results, with some good spells here and there, and a lot of very shaky spells, we finally play against a team that finished higher than the bottom two of the league last year, in San Jose. The Earthquakes have more or less the same team that made it to the Eastern Conference final last year, three years of stable building leading them to the point where they should be considered a legitimate contender, even in the much higher quality Western Conference. Chris Wondolowski has picked up where he left off last year with two goals already, and they've plenty of other attacking options in Khari Stephenson, Simon Dawkins, Steven Lenhart if he's fit and Bobby Convey, who could well have a field day on the Left Wing for them. Though San Jose has an identical 1-1-1 record and 4 points, those results have come against Real Salt lake, FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders, three of the best teams in MLS last year. I imagine their feelings about being able to play TFC next can be summed up by that picture of Sam Cronin.
If all this leads you to think I'm fearing the worst on Saturday, you're right. While Toronto FC have so far looked just about OK against other expansion or rebuilding clubs, without significant improvement, I can't help but think "it's ok, we're building for the future" will be the mantra I'll be repeating to make myself feel better about what I'm seeing.
Where might that significant improvement come from? Well, barring more last minute pre-game signings or trades like we've seen the last two weeks, one thing that will help is the fact that the team will have had at least a week in practice to get to know each other, so we shouldn't see another horror show like the first 20 minutes of the game against Chivas USA last week.
There's a good chance we'll see the same starting eleven as last week, with only 2 or 3 positions up for grabs. The fitness of Julian de Guzman should decide one of those spots, if he's good to go, I think he'll get one of the defensive midfield spots in a 4-2-1-3 formation. Tony Tchani showed glimpses against Chivas of being a potentially dominant midfielder so I'd expect him to get the nod ahead of Jacob Peterson for the other DM assignment.
The other two changes could come in defence, firstly with the decision of whether Mikael Yourassowsky comes back into the line up ahead of Danleigh Borman, I hope he does, he looked very good going forward against Portland. The big problem position remains at Right Back, where Ty Harden looked no better against Chivas than Dan Gargan did in the first two games. I wouldn't fancy the chances of either of those two against US international Convey, and I wouldn't like to see Demetrious Omphroy thrown in against him either. As much as I'm loathe to suggest a 4th different Centre Back partnership in 4 games, I'd like to see Dicoy Williams start alongside Adrian Cann, with Nana Attakora switched over to Right Back. Of course that's an imperfect answer as the quicker more mobile Attakora would probably match up better in the middle against Wondolowski, so who knows really. One way or another we're in trouble back there.
Up front, I imagine we'll see the same again, Alan Gordon in the middle with Javier Martina and Alen Stevanovic out wide and Maicon Santos as the Attacking Midfielder, going up against former TFC player Sam Cronin.
So my guess for a starting line up is as follows.
It should be interesting to see how Martina copes with San Jose's narrower pitch, hopefully he can find a way to be effective despite having less room to work his magic out wide.
As opposed to Martina who's more of a traditional winger, using width to try and beat his man on the outside, Stevanovic looks more comfortable cutting in from the left, so I think the narrow pitch could really help him. In the game against Chivas he never really got into the game, mainly due to not receiving much service, he seemed isolated from the rest of the team at times, so being closer to his teammates should be another thing in his favour. I hope that is the case, I was excited by his signing, and he hasn't really shown anything beyond a few occasional hints of his talent so far.
Two years in a row now, TFC have scored three goals at San Jose. Given their defensive frailties, they'll probably going to have to do the same this year to have any hope of a result. Stranger things have happened I suppose, for instance the fact that TFC have actually scored three times and beaten San Jose away twice in a row, but I really can't see them making it three.
My prediction, San Jose 3, Toronto 1. I hope I'm wrong. Anyone out there a little more optimistic?