After months of build-up and anticipation, it is finally time for Toronto FC to host Los Angeles in the first leg of their quarterfinal meeting in the CONCACAF Champions League. On Wednesday night the two teams will take the field, but what should be expected from the defending Supporters Shield/MLS Cup champions.
With preseason having wrapped up on Saturday by winning the Desert Diamond Cup with a squad full of youngsters, the Galaxy's key contributors will have had some quality rest.
They have no players suspended for the match, though both Pat Noonan and Marcelo Sarvas are cup-tied having fielded for Seattle and Alajuelense respectively in this edition of the tournament. The only major injury is the torn ACL suffered by Omar Gonzalez in Germany that will see him absent for the majority of the season, but Landon Donovan is recovering from a bout of Bronchitis that forced him to pull out of the squad for the US match against Italy in Genoa last week; latest reports indicate he is slightly short of full fitness.
It could almost be argued that their coach, Bruce Arena, went out of his way to give Aron Winter & Co. as little tape as possible to study the newest composition of LA, having never fielded a full-strength eleven; rarely having more than a handful of starters on the pitch at the same time.
Robbie Keane and the aforementioned Donovan - both returned from loan stints in England - did not see the field at all in preseason, while the likes of Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin, and Edson Buddle were given limited action. David Beckham, Mike Magee, Juninho, and AJ De La Garza saw slightly more playing time, though it was well-managed and geared mostly around building fitness levels in match situations. There is a slight risk that the lack of action will see some players lacking sharpness - particularly Donovan and Keane who last played February 11th and 25th respectively.
Despite the lack of recent evidence, it is expected that Los Angeles will field a side reminiscent of the eleven that fared so well in last season's campaign.
Their only concern surrounding the side is who will pair with De La Garza in the centre of defense come kick off with Gonzalez unavailable and Leonardo a few weeks away from fitness.
Throughout the preseason the two in the middle - the whole back-line really - was chopped and changed with reckless abandon; the two draft picks - Tommy Meyer and Bryan Gaul - featured extensively, but such a match of elevated import is hardly the best time to debut a new professional, so it could be assumed that Andrew Boyens - the Kiwi of TFC’s inaugural season fame - will be deployed in that crucial position. With all that said, the projected lineup will look something like this:
From right to left, a back four of Franklin, Boyens, De La Garza, and Dunivant; a midfield of Donovan, Beckham, Juninho, and Magee; Buddle and Keane paired up top. Donovan and Magee are relatively interchangeable on the flanks, as are Beckham and Juninho in the middle. But Beckham playing on the right allows him to serve his cross-field, right-footers into the path of both Keane and Magee, while Donovan’s forays forward from that same flank will seek to pin back and exploit Toronto’s weaker left back position.
The only changes from LA’s eleven that rolled through the playoffs last season are Boyens in for Gonzalez and Buddle – another former Red - in for Adam Cristman/Chad Barrett - a decrease in defensive ability and an upgrade in attack.
Given the fitness or potential lack-thereof for some of the attacking six, seeing Barrett – who would love to get one over on his former employers - Paolo Cardozo, Michael Stephens, or Héctor Jiménez, either take the first half, or come on as second half substitutes, would not be a complete surprise.
Expect LA to play their usual game of smash and grab on the road, deploying a tight defensive structure, while allowing their high-priced attacking talent to break forward when opportunity allows. That’s where they are at their most dangerous; a quick, skillful attack seizing on a mistake or lack of concentration by their opponent.
In last season’s MLS Cup Final, even though they were at home and had several chances that went begging, it was one of those fast breaks combining all their star power that led to the eventual breakthrough for the game-winner. A De La Garza-ball from the back was flicked-on by Beckham to Keane, who threaded a pass to Donovan to chip over the Houston keeper, Tally Hall.
Set pieces too will be a threat, corners from Beckham and free kicks from a myriad of players will cause an opponent foolish enough to grant those opportunities trouble.
An interesting parallel to recall is the first round match from the 2010 playoffs. Facing a large, raucous crowd in the Sounders first ever MLS playoff game, a spectacular, first half strike by Buddle belted from distance, catching Kasey Keller off-guard was enough to see out the opening leg in Seattle to set up a professional and casual 2-1 win at home; Seattle’s goal coming as a late consolation with the tie decided from Steve Zakuani.
For all the much heralded talent that LA possesses it is their discipline that has made them champions, a trend they will seek to continue in front of the forty-five thousand fans in Toronto. Keeping the game tight, silencing the crowd, and taking home a workable result to their own ground.
Despite modest preseason results, the Galaxy will take heart from several factors.
Buddle has already found the back of the net in his return from Germany to his former club – nodding home a header at the far-post against New England from a Beckham cross near the corner flag.
The deadly pipeline of Magee and Beckham, which served LA so well in the playoffs, has already gotten off the mark as well, scoring the second in the 2-0 victory over Salt Lake, when a Beckham cross picked out Magee sneaking in behind the defense for a volley low across Nick Rimando.
Conceding four goals in their four matches in Arizona is a slight increase on their average from last year (0.82), but hardly a cause for concern. What was an issue was how those goals were conceded – poor man-marking in the box and a failure to apply pressure to the ball - allowing shots and crosses to be delivered from dangerous positions; a deadly combination of defensive weaknesses.
Benny Feilhaber’s bicycle kick in the tournament opener was a direct result of these two factors – a cross from the right delivered without challenge, a free headed flick-on by Shalrie Joseph – combined with a missed clearance by a pair of defenders, allowed the ball to fall to the midfielder who converted the chance so eloquently.
They were also susceptible to pace, with less-damaging consequences, as when Saër Sène stole in to only be denied by a fine save from Saunders against New England and when a Jan Gunnar Solli through-ball found Dane Richards dashing between De La Garza and Boyens to be denied by a sliding block from the keeper in their game against New York.
As with pace, LA was troubled by a bit of clever passing that undid their defense. A well-disguised pull back after a feinted cross from New York allowed Kenny Cooper to open the scoring in their match. Cooper ghosted into the top of the box, trailing the play and was not picked up allowing a calmly placed shot to find the bottom corner of the net.
Similarly, from a New England corner kick nobody picked up the late run of centre back John Lozano attacking the delivery from deep, allowing a virtually free header to put the Revolution back out in front after Buddle’s strike had cancelled out Feilhaber’s.
New York’s second goal – the eventual game-winner – exhibited all these signs of weakness. A quick transition, Thierry Henry bursting through the middle of the park unharied, a neat layoff to Richards on his right, only to continue his run into the box and be picked out by a dinked cross from the Jamaican, which the Frenchman rose to unchallenged and poked in from the near-post. All too easy for the Red Bulls, but of course this was preseason after all.
Toronto’s speed on the flanks – and subsequent width - will be a cause for concern, but the real threat will be Danny Koevermans deceptive use of space in the eighteen-yard box. For such a big man he has a devastating ability to make himself a yard or two, a skill upon which LA would be wise to keep a close eye.
The Reds will need to be precise with their possession and passing to limit the Galaxy’s opportunities to counter. While moving quickly enough to catch the LA centre backs in isolation, without reinforcement from either the full backs – Franklin and Dunivant - or midfielders - Juninho, Magee and Donovan in particular – that will attempt to provide support to the weakened heart of the defense.
If TFC can get the ball to Koevermans, with at least one of those full back out of position, he should have the space to manipulate one of those good goal-scoring opportunities for himself.
Torsten Frings will - as always - be essential to distribution, TFC being without Julian de Guzman who is suspended. But he cannot be caught in possession deep, especially with Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan having to push forward - to extend the width, increase the numbers in attack and to hold back Magee and Donovan.
The limited width of the pitch – Bruce Arena referred to it as "narrow" in an interview with MLSsoccer.com’s Luis Bueno – will compact the midfield and perhaps bog down the action in the middle of the park, thus making the speed of Toronto’s widemen – Plata and Johnson – and the quick feet of Luis Silva in picking out passes, even more important in getting forward in a timely fashion.
Anticipate both sides looking to play long diagonal passes to free up space behind the oppositions full backs should the field be too tight to play straight through-balls. Artificial surfaces tend to play quicker than natural grass, so crisp passing could lead to an advantage for the speedier Toronto wingers, though of course that goes both ways, as mentioned Los Angeles’ quick breaks can be devastating.
Toronto’s defense will have to be mindful of LA’s attacking prowess, pressuring Beckham at every opportunity, tracking the runs of Donovan and Magee, while not allowing Buddle or Keane to sneak behind them.
Buddle’s aerial efficiency and Magee’s ability to find space will prove advantageous should Toronto concede dead-ball situations in their half of the pitch, not to mention Keane and Donovan’s general ability. With so many threats TFC’s marking on set plays, given Beckham’s aptitude, will be paramount to keeping the Galaxy off the scoreboard, though without Gonzalez there is a lack of height, matching a similar deficiency in the Reds.
Points of Interest
In the event that it comes to penalties at the end of the second leg, the Galaxy’s second-string keeper, Brian Perk, has proved himself capable in a shootout. He saved a pair of kicks – from Ryan Guy and Feilhaber - in the championship match in Arizona, equaling his form from spot kicks against Manchester City last summer where he denied both John Guidetti and Joleon Lescott before succumbing to a Joe Hart rocket that ended the affair. Not to mention that his first ever save in MLS was from a Fredy Montero spot kick back in July of last season.
It should be noted that the last time two MLS sides were paired in an early match in this competition was a dire 0-0 draw between Salt Lake and Columbus at a frozen Crew Stadium last February. Playing the match indoors, and an extra two weeks of offseason should spare such an unspectacular encounter. Salt Lake went on to take the home leg 4-1 to move on to the semifinals.
Performance issues in front of the large crowd could affect the match, as neither Toronto, nor Los Angeles will have played in front of a significantly sized audience in a game that matters in some time. Both sides have a sufficient complement of experienced players that it should not be a major factor. That possibility, combined with the peculiar nature of the facilities and pitch could stifle the early play, but should not prove decisive to the result.
You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @grawsee.