All the questions of what kind of lineup Aron Winter would put out, whether he'd rotate his squad and look to rest players ahead of Tuesday's upcoming CCL game against Pumas UNAM were answered with an emphatic no, as Toronto FC took to the field against Chivas USA with what is very much their first team. Stefan Frei was back in goal, Julian de Guzman and Danny Koevermans were both out there, as was all of what passes for our first choice defence. They lined up in a 4-3-3, clearly going for the win to keep their MLS playoff hopes alive. It didn't go well.
Chivas also needed to win to keep their slightly more realistic playoff hopes alive and after a cagey opening, they put the pressure on. There'd already been a couple of dangerous crosses in before Richard Eckersley moved up to try and cut a ball off, missed and left a lot of space down Chivas' left side. Canadian international Ante Jazic put in a fabulous cross and Juan Pablo Angel lost his marker to get a powerful header in that Frei got a hand to, but just couldn't stop going in. Up until about the half hour mark, it was all Chivas, and though it did get a bit better towards the end of the first, TFC went in lucky to be down by just one.
With Terry Dunfield brought in for De Guzman at half time, the second half started well, Richard Eckersley hit a 30 yard screamer that hit the crossbar, and then Ryan Johnson just missed with a header from a lovely cross by Nick Soolsma. Those chances were both within the first 5 minutes, and it wasn't long after that that Danny Koevermans was sent through on goal by a delicious Torsten Frings through ball, but with a defender on his back, his shot, though strong, was right at the goalie. Chivas got themselves going again and after an even 20 minutes or so, they got their second from Justin Braun, beating Ashtone Morgan to a ball at the near post to knock a header in. Juan Pablo Angel made Andy Iro look silly in the 77th (to be fair to Iro, he did alright tonight, but if you put him up against an in form Angel, that was always eventually going to happen) to make it 3-0 and that was that . All the hopelessly over optimistic playoff talk can now officially end, and after his gamble backfired, the recriminations against Aron Winter's decision to field such a strong team can really begin.
Don't get me wrong, I can understand the concept of wanting to win every game you play, of never going out there and not trying your best, and also can understand that positive momentum can be a very good thing that's worth chasing after. I can also understand that this was about something bigger than this season, trying to build something for the future, evaluating players and seeing where upgrades are needed in the squad, all that preseason 2012 stuff. But couldn't all that stuff be put aside, just this once, to focus on the bigger short term picture.
Getting a result on Tuesday, though even a win would clinch nothing, would be a great moment in the club's history, and would mean that at the very least, the 2011 season had a few more weeks of relevance and something to look forward to, rather than being one long depressing march through the final month. The game was always going to be tough, even without suspensions to Torsten Frings and Terry Dunfield and ineligibility ruling Eric Avila out, the Pumas team is frankly a lot more talented that Toronto's. TFC will need a lot of things to go their way, the players will have to play above themselves and get a bit of luck, and hopefully they'll come away with at least the point they need.
Maybe TFC can still get a result, maybe they won't, but I think most fans would have been very forgiving if TFC had done everything they could to get ready for the game, and just lost to the better team. There's no shame in that, it would be unrealistic to suggest that TFC should be beating Pumas. Now though, by stubbornly sticking to the idea of always putting out your best team, and by gambling on getting a good result and some momentum, Winter has opened himself up to a lot of criticism. Whether this extra game and travel affects the Reds performance on Tuesday or not, if TFC don't get the result they need, Winter's decision will be held up as a contributing factor. I get the impression that Winter isn't one to care what the media and supporters might think of his decisions, and he reinforced that by very brazenly mentioning fatigue, a heavy schedule and lack of freshness in his post game interview.
If that was a problem tonight, after needlessly adding in two trans continent flights and 90 more minutes it's going to be an even bigger problem on Tuesday, you know Aron, when it actually matters, and that extra unnecessary toll on the first teams tired bodies was completely your fault. Even if we had got a win against Chivas, the wisdom of that decision would have been debatable, but after that result, it really wasn't worth it at all.