With a handful of first-teamers away on international duty and the front office presumably still reeling from the reported shuffle, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Saturday with a long road trip to Portland to face the Timbers.
Last Friday’s match against New England was a touch underwhelming. The draw was fair enough result against a tough opponent, but, with another season closing without playoffs, a certain malaise has set in.
To be honest, this season was always apt to be a rebuilding one; what rankles is that for every step forward, there is another back – the club operating in a limbo of sorts.
The raucous BMO Field crowds, once the envy of the league, have faded into a sombre bunch; what awaits the club at JELD-WEN Field is entirely the opposite.
A club in just their third season in MLS find themselves on the edge of a playoff berth, their first.
That says a lot, but is not the whole story; clearly a closer look at the enemy, the Portland Timbers, is in order.
Coach Caleb Porter has done a marvelous job since taking the reins of the club in the off season, but finds himself in a spot of bother.
Injuries and a series of suspensions have crippled the club, leading to a downturn in form that has derailed an otherwise solid season.
Heading into the match, it is difficult to pin down exactly what Porter will do.
Part-tactical guru, part-unending tinker-man, the former University of Akron coach has given his side a number of different looks this season.
Primarily operating in a 4-3-3 - with a two-man pivot of Will Johnson and Diego Chara behind Diego Valeri in the midfield and a three-pronged attack up top, Porter has been forced to re-evaluate, recently trotting out a 4-1-4-1 against Seattle – to moderate success – and then a quasi-3-4-3 against Salt Lake – an abject failure.
Captain Will Johnson, utility man Jack Jewsbury, and Martiniquais – shudder – striker Frederic Piquionne, as well as several centre-backs, were already on the injury list; a restriction made worst when Valeri was forced off in the first half on Friday.
Further complicating matters are the suspension of Ben Zemanski – for a red card against Salt Lake - and the loss of a further three players to international duty.
Recently-appointed Jamaican National Team coach, Winnie Schafer, has called in goalkeeper, Donovan Ricketts, forward – and former Red – Ryan Johnson, and the recently introduced – and mightily impressive – right-back, Alvas Powell.
So, with all that in mind, their projected lineup is as follows (back in the 4-3-3): old friend Milos Kocic in goal; from right to left – Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Rauwshan McKenzie, Pa Modou Kah, and Michael Harrington across the back; Will Johnson and Diego Chara sitting with Kalif Alhassan further ahead in the midfield; Darlington Nagbe, Jose Valencia, and Rodney Wallace up top.
A few further caveats:
Will Johnson – who has missed their last four matches with a fractured scapula – looks set to return, if reports are to be believed.
Should Piquionne overcome his ankle trouble, he will likely take the centre-forward position from the young Valencia, who has seen limited minutes after joining the club prior to last season, only to have a knee injury preclude any playing time in 2012.
Bright Dike, who suffered an ACL injury in the pre-season, was on the bench last weekend and featured heavily in their most recent reserve match; teenage Colombian, Sebastian Rincon, has yet to see any first team minutes.
Valeri, who was forced off with an apparent adductor strain, if ready to go will take up his point role in the midfield, while Nagbe could also fill in there, if Porter opts to field Sal Zizzo on the right-side of the attacking three - Zizzo appears to have played a half for the reserves at right-back, so could alternatvely be an option there.
Jewsbury, if ready to return, will either take up a central position – should Will Johnson not be able to go – or could fill in at right-back.
There is also some confusion over whether Kah is available after a sly knee to the back of the head of Eddie Johnson in the recent derby, but the most recent MLS Disciplinary Summary makes no mention of any additional suspension, aside from the yellow card accumulation action that saw him unavailable against Salt Lake.
Futty Danso, one of the numerous injured centre-backs, was on the bench in Salt Lake and could potentially be called into action, if required.
Portland is seriously short-handed for this match; it is unclear if they have any scouts or local men’s league players who can fill in during this time of need.
Portland currently sits in fifth place in the West – tied with Colorado on 39 points, with a game in hand, but behind in the first tie-breaker (wins) - clinging to that last playoff position with two points on both Vancouver and Dallas, each having played 26 matches.
After a slow, winless start to the season – drawing three of their first four matches – Portland embarked on a long unbeaten run, stretching from March to July (a span of fifteen league matches and three in the US Open Cup) before losing 1-0 in Columbus on a goal from Bernardo Anor after going down a man in the eleventh minute.
They would rebound with a 2-1 win over Los Angeles the following week - Marcelo Sarvas and Ryan Johnson exchanging first half goals before Jean-Baptiste found a winner in stoppage-time - but since then they have struggled.
In the following seven league matches, they have only won one – 2-1 against Dallas, goals from Ryan Johnson and Nagbe either side of a Mauro Diaz strike – and fallen out of the cup away to Salt Lake in the semi-final, 2-1.
A scoreless draw away to Philadelphia was followed by a loss in San Jose – Victor Bernardez and Steven Lenhart struck three minutes apart in the first thirteen minutes of the second half, before Nagbe would grab a consolation goal in the 83rd to set up a tense finale.
A draw in Portland against Vancouver – Ryan Johnson had put Portland in front, but Jordan Harvey responded in the 69th and a Kah winner at the death was, correctly, ruled offside - preceded the Open Cup failure and was follow by that win against Dallas.
Another draw, this time 3-3 against Salt Lake in a midweek six-goal thriller, saw Wallace put Portland ahead, only for Nat Borchers and Javier Morales - from the spot – to turn the tide heading into halftime; Valeri would convert a penalty himself after an hour and Alhassan looked to grab the winner in the 86th, only for Cole Grossman to equalize in the 93rd minute.
That disappointment was followed by a pair of losses: 1-0 on an Eddie Johnson goal in Seattle and a 4-2 loss in Salt Lake this past weekend, goals from Luis Gil and Joao Plata in the first half and Morales and Alvaro Saborio in the second, Nagbe and Zizzo would provide scant relief with a goal in each half, respectively.
For all the positives they have accomplished in Porter’s first season, it is the sheer number of draws – twelve – that sees their inclusion is the MLS after-party at risk.
Clearly, Portland will enter the match with limited options and in a poor patch of form, but that is no reason to underestimate them.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, as well as highlighting some points of interest, will be up later today.
Part Two is available here.