Before Toronto FC's first Voyageurs Cup against Edmonton, I described those games as 'the biggest of the season'. Before the first leg against Vancouver, I said that 'this right here is the season', the second leg was 'by itself the most important game of the season', and the second leg part two was 'the season defining game for both clubs'. So what the hell do I call Wednesday's and next Tuesday's games against Real Esteli?
Given that TFC have actually won those games, while performing terribly in all the league games I've dismissed as worthless, I'm going with the option of continuing to crank up the hyperbole. These two games will make or break Aron Winter's reign as coach. Make or Break! Win, and there's 6 more games, and the season stays relevant for a lot longer, and positive results in the group stage would make his position a lot more secure. Lose, and the questioning of his coaching ability, tactical acumen and man management skills will become even more pointed.
It would be very deserved as well, as there's no way TFC should be losing to Real Esteli, as Duane Rollins pointed out, Nicaraguan teams record in international games over the last 10 years is a pretty terrible 1W -4D -18L. Even a nickname as awesome as 'the train of the north' can't make that look good. Despite that record though, I'd expect Winter to put out the strongest side he can on Wednesday to nail down the first leg win, with a comfortable enough victory to enable him to rest some players and let them avoid the trip out for the return leg. What might that strongest lineup be, and will they be good enough to crack what will probably be a very defensive and frustrating Real team?
Poor overworked Stefan Frei is usually a guarantee in net, but interviews on TFCTV gave the impression that he'll be rested on Wednesday due to an injured hand and that Milos Kocic will get the start. The few games he played last year suggest he'll be just fine, the more interesting question is who plays in defence ahead of him, and how they line up. Personally I'd go with Richard Eckersley and Mikael Yourassowsky at the full back positions, mainly for their atttacking ability. Though avoiding conceding an away goal will be crucial, I think Real are more than likely going to be playing very defensively, so defence won't be too much of a priority for TFC, and supporting the wingers will probably be the main way the full backs contribute. Richard Eckersley is way ahead of Eddy Viator in that respect, so I really hope he gets that role, and let Viator be the latest partner through the revolving door to join in with Andy Iro's Centre Back baptism of fire.
Aron Winter suggested that both Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield are now match-fit, and so could be playing in midfield. I'd be surprised to see both of them go from not even on the subs bench to right into the starting line up, but if even one of them can do that, that would be a big upgrade on what we've seen alongside Torsten Frings in the last couple of games. Up front is probably the easiest to predict as I'd expect to see the same Johnson - Koevermans -Soolsma starting three, with Joao Plata ready to come off the bench to cover either wing position.
Depending on who is actually fit and who isn't, I'd hope to see Winter go with his strongest possible lineup to get a comfortable win, the last thing we need is to be going down to Nicaragua needing to get a result, or with only a very narrow lead. I'm fairly confident that TFC can actually get the win, but I'll predict a 2-0 result that still leaves a bit of nervousness over next week's second leg.