Reeling from Wednesday’s defeat, Toronto FC must dust themselves off, take a deep breath and move on, for Saturday brings with it the next challenge.
Though prospects look dim, the club having used up their last game in hand and currently sitting in sixth-place on forty points from 31 matches – three points behind Columbus with just three games remaining – the playoffs, while improbable, are not yet impossible.
Dispiriting though the loss may have been - dominating large swathes of the game, only to be repeatedly denied by an incredible goalkeeping performance and missing a penalty kick to boot – now is not the time to hang the head; now is the time to prove it.
Toronto has been under pressure all season, but perhaps that points came so easy early and the fact of games in hand clouded their true position made it easy to overlook results and forgive mistakes. There is no more margin of error, no room for slip up; there is no tomorrow.
The three-game test begins on Saturday in New York, a place that has not been kind to Toronto over the years, but that is no excuse. This will be the third meeting between the clubs this year – TFC won the first at home and drew the second on the road; much of what was written then rings true, but still, a closer look at this weekend’s enemy, the New York Red Bulls is in order.
New York enters Saturday’s match in mixed form, holding on to the fourth spot in the East on 44 points from 31 matches, just one point ahead of Columbus and four ahead of TFC.
With Kansas City’s struggles, New York is within two points of Sporting, and a result on Saturday could see them overtake KC, depending on KC’s result on Friday against Chicago.
When it comes to assessing New York, the first observation is home form versus that on the road. At home they are a very good team, unbeaten in their last nine at Red Bull Arena – a streak that stretches back to the draw between the clubs at the end of June, having last lost on May 24, 1-2 against Portland.
The road however is an entirely different beast, where they are winless in their last seven, since defeating a then-struggling New England side, 0-2 on June 8.
Since the World Cup break, it has been clockwork, perform at home and capitulate on the road.
Having drawn with Toronto in their return from the hiatus, New York would embark on a three-match unbeaten run, collecting a 2-2 draw in Houston and winning 4-1 over Columbus back at home, before falling 3-1 in Philadelphia on short rest four days later. Again short rest would see them drop points, drawing 1-1 against San Jose back at home three days after the loss in Philly.
Some time off – eleven days, to be exact – would allow a brief respite before embarking on a grueling two-month spell littered with thirteen fixtures, as league and CONCACAF commitments had the Red Bulls fully booked.
A 1-1 draw in Salt Lake was followed by another win over the Revolution, 2-1 at home this time. Another bizarre thirteen-day break, in the midst of such a busy spell, would see a fresh side beat Montreal 4-2 and three days after that they took their Champions League opener with a 2-0 home win over Salvadoran side CD FAS. New York would lose that weekend, playing their third match of the week, 2-0 in DC on Sunday.
Six days on and back at home, Red Bull would hand KC a 2-1 loss and midweek they would find revenge over DC, beating them 1-0 in New York. Those two matches, aside from showing what New York was capable of against the East’s best, kicked off a whirlwind month that saw the Red Bulls play eight matches in 28 days.
They would draw 2-2 in Philadelphia before falling 1-0 in a crucial Champions League match in Montreal, handing the Impact the advantage in their group. A 4-1 win over Seattle back home would follow with Bradley Wright-Phillips netting a hat-trick and Tim Cahill adding the fourth; Clint Dempsey scored the Sounders only goal.
A 0-0 draw away to CD FAS would see their CONCACAF dreams end; a miserable week capped off by a 4-0 hammering in Los Angeles with Robbie Keane notching a brace, Gyasi Zardes and Landon Donovan would round out the rout.
Most recently, New York would return to winning ways and extend their home unbeaten run to nine with a 1-0 win over Houston last weekend, Thierry Henry scoring the game’s lone goal in the 47th minute.
The Red Bulls have three league matches remaining, hosting Columbus and travelling to Kansas City after the Toronto match; their final Champions League game against Montreal is a dead rubber.
June 27 New York 2: Toronto 2
Peguy Luyindula opened the scoring in the 36th minute when Ambroise Oyongo broke down the left from a Henry ball, cutting back onto his right-foot to send a ball into the middle, allowing the French-Congolese striker to help it on to the far-side of goal.
Jermaine Defoe would respond for TFC in the 55th minute, getting on the end of a Dominic Oduro ball to the near-post after Jonathan Osorio played him down the right.
Gilberto put the Reds in front in the 72nd minute, blasting his free-kick into the roof of the net, having ‘talked’ Defoe into giving him the look.
But Wright-Phillips got on the end of a long Matt Miazga ball after Tim Cahill flicked it on from the top of the box, allowing New York’s top-scorer to left-foot under Joe Bendik in the 93rd minute.
It was TFC’s first point at Red Bull Arena, snapping New York’s five-game home winning streak against Toronto.
For a second consecutive match, Toronto will be handed a weakened opponent, as New York has four players away on International duty – the cautionary tale of Wednesday’s defeat remains, however.
Roy Miller, Matt Miazga, Ambroise Oyongo, and Tim Cahill will not be available, away with Costa Rica, US U-23s, Cameroon, and Australia, respectively. Cahill would have been suspended anyways, having seen a red card against Houston on the weekend.
A disciplinary committee decision came down midweek that will see yet another Red Bull player unavailable, as Luyindula received a one-match suspension for his scissor tackle on Houston’s Luis Garrido, leaving Mike Petke with one less option for Saturday.
There are also two injuries reported, to midfielders Michael Bustamante and former Red Bobby Convey, leaving New York with fewer options.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Luis Robles in goal; from right to left – Chris Duvall, Jamison Olave, Ibrahim Sekagya, and Richard Eckersley across the back; Lloyd Sam, Dax McCarty, Eric Alexander, and Thierry Henry through the midfield; with Bradley Wright-Phillips paired up top with Sair Sene.
Despite all the absences, Petke has a several options at his disposal, but just who he will pick is difficult to say.
The left-back spot in particular is a problem with Miller and Oyongo the first two choices. Kosuke Kimura and Connor Lade are options there, but neither has seen much time on the pitch of late.
Armando, nominally a centre-back, played there against Philadelphia and could do so once more. Eckersley is more a right-back by trade, but has played on that side. He has spent most of the season riding the pine, but has seen action of late and looked solid. Convey’s injury seems to preclude his inclusion, but one can never be sure.
There is also Damien Perrinelle, who recently joined the club (July) and could be an option, having made his league debut as a sub against Houston. If any of these possibilities take shape on the left, Eckersley could take up his preferred right-flank instead.
It is possible that Armando could dislodge Sekagya from the centre of defense as well.
In midfield, a handful of young players – Ruben Bover, Ian Christianson, Marius Obekop, and Eric Stevenson – have seen very limited action; given the circumstances, Bover could take up the left-side pushing Henry up top or Alexander could move out wide, opening up a central role for Christianson or Stevenson.
If Henry were forced up top – he has taken to playing on that left-side to find even more space to exploit; he always drifted there, but in midfield he gets even more time on the ball – Sene would give way, having seen only limited action since joining in a trade from New England that saw Andre Akpan and allocation money head in the other direction.
Plenty of possibilities; will have to wait until Saturday to find out.
Skipping over league-leading goal-scorer Wright-Phillips for a moment – just a moment, he does have 24 goals after all - Henry is the catalyst for the team, for without the latter, the former would have nowhere near the number of goals he does.
Henry, with his thirteen assists and ten goals, is one of the best players to ever grace MLS. There is no debate to be had.
In his five seasons with New York, the Frenchman has 51 goals and 41 assists in 120 league appearances, or, a point in two of out every three matches – a phenomenal record.
Recently Henry has taken to the left-sided midfield position that allows him to get more involved in the play than, doing more than a mere forward could do. He always tended to drift out wide to find space within which to operate, but what has been surprising his how much of a two-way player he has been, spurring on his side towards the playoffs.
He made one play against Houston, spotting the overlapping run of Kofi Sarkodie, cutting out the danger with a tackle-block on his own end-line that embodied the fire the 37-year old still exudes.
From his deeper position on the left, Henry has plenty of space to pop up in pockets of space, a truly devastating potential. His game-winner against Houston was a perfect example, ghosting into space at the back-post when New York attacked up the right to be on hand when Tyler Deric palmed a ball straight to him for a simple tap in:
It seems odd to say, but Henry has been underappreciated in MLS; fans here have had five years to watch one of the best players of his generation, and yet he simply does not get the ink his contributions have warranted.
Consider this strike against Kansas City:
Kansas City had plenty of defenders back, the sweeping attack seeming to have stalled, only for Henry to find a pocket of space on the left-corner of the box, setting up the right-footed blast to the top corner, despite three KC players stepping to him, albeit a tad late.
He has a goal or an assist in six of their last eight matches, racking up five goals and three assists over that spell, and must be watched very carefully. The right-side of the Toronto defense must not allow him that space; Mark Bloom, Jonathan Osorio, Dominic Oduro, whomever is there, must (note the stress on ‘must’) be constantly aware of his presence and alert enough to close him down earlier.
Threat number one out of the way, the second is just as potent, as Wright-Phillips has proven himself clinical in front of goal – though not as clinical as he could have been.
Having scored just one goal in seven appearances after joining New York midseason, Wright-Phillips has feasted upon the service of Henry and others – namely, Sam and Luyindula - to surge to the top of the goal-scoring charts. Truth be told however, he should perhaps have many more, wasting more chances than he has finished, requiring three looks or more for every goal scored.
What makes him so troublesome is the intelligence of his movement, reacting to plays just a fraction quicker than MLS defenders are capable. Take his hat-trick goal against Seattle in the 4-1 mauling New York put on the Sounders at the end of September. Spotting Henry’s intention before Chad Marshall – no slouch himself – Wright-Phillips was able to break free of his marker, making his run in between the Sounders defenders to roof a right-footed touch past Stefan Frei:
The football intelligence to make that yard of space has been a trademark of his all season, moving well both vertically and horizontally to break free of defensive shackles. Expect his battle with Steven Caldwell to be an intriguing one, as the veteran TFC defender will likely be tasked with shutting him down. The winner of that contest could prove decisive for the match itself.
He has not scored in two games and has goals in just one of their last five – granted it was that hat-trick against Seattle; since the start of the season, scoring on opening day then waiting six matches for his second (he was in and out of the lineup at the time – before scoring another hat-trick, the first of three on the season) he has not gone more than two matches with out a goal, which is a troublesome consideration.
That Henry to Wright-Phillips combination is devastating – here playing him in against Montreal and here against Kansas City – again, finding that chance through his ceaseless and purposeful running and that passing is part of the reason why Henry has dropped deeper, to cut teams opening with his ability to play a ball.
New York, when not bursting through the middle like that, makes good use of their width, with Sam in particular coming into his own after fighting to earn a regular spot in the lineup, surging up the right with abandon.
If all that were not enough, Dax McCarty, not noted for his goal-scoring, contributed this beauty, against New England:
New York have scored 34 of their 49 goals at home, averaging more than two per match. TFC will no doubt have their hands full with the numerous Red Bull attacks. No slips ups this time.
Fortunately, given that New York will undoubtedly score, they can be had at the back, susceptible to even the most rudimentary of attacks, such as this route one Luis Silva goal for DC indicates:
Bill Hamid’s goal-kick is flicked into the path of Silva by Fabian Espindola; Silva then takes advantage of slight hesitation by Sekagya and Robles to steal a touch away and tuck into the open net.
This play is exactly the sort of thing that Defoe and Luke Moore are capable of – and Toronto was definitely leaning on long balls against Houston, a tactic that could prove more fruitful against New York.
Aside from such direct play, New York’s defenses can be caught sluggish and disjointed when forced to move. Gyasi Zardes added LA’s third on a play that was incredibly simple, if equally skillful.
Having collected the ball deep in the corner, Zardes was allowed to curl back, collect a return ball from Stefan Ishizaki and walk across the top of the box before playing a one-two with Landon Donovan to score with a low right-footer:
Toronto is nowhere near as clinical in the attacking third as LA, but such chances will present themselves and Osorio, Michael Bradley, Defoe, and Moore are all capable of such tight interplay, especially when confronted with gaps of that size within which to play.
From that same match, a rookie mistake from Chris Duvall allowed Donovan to score the second, the full-back hesitating in dealing with a simple ball:
It was a goal that spoke of how daring to put oneself in good positions will be rewarded. Donovan spots the possibility and then makes it happen – a vision that Toronto has sorely been lacking in this season. There is no time left to be hesitant, TFC needs to close down each and every ball with that sort of aggression and desire.
Taking the initiative of making runs, creating chances when half-ones appear, is Toronto’s way to stay in the playoff hunt. Consider Clint Dempsey’s goal for the Sounders in their 4-1 defeat, note how a good forward ball gets New York defenses moving, thereby fracturing whatever minor cohesiveness they had:
Video – Dempsey
All three defenders collapse on the ball, no one spotting or tracking the run of Dempsey, who puts the ball in the back of the net after a simple pass.
Defoe and Gilberto, if interested and fit, respectively, need to test that back-line, get them moving and then link up with late-arriving teammates. Easier said than done, but Toronto will have to earn their spot and hope for results elsewhere to go their way.
This will be the third meeting between the clubs this season. Toronto won the first 2-0 at home and looked to have the second, only for that late Wright-Phillips strike to clinch a 2-2 draw for the hosts.
They have met twenty times in league play, with New York winning ten, Toronto five, and drawing the other five.
In New York, the Red Bulls have dominated winning seven and drawing one, TFC’s only win having come back in 2008 by a 1-3 score-line with a Chad Barrett brace and a single from Ibby Ibrahim overpowering a Dane Richards strike.
Prior to this season’s draw, New York had won the last five matches by a combined score of 17-1, including two 5-0 victories, one of which forever changed the history of MLS. Toronto could have secured a playoff spot in their third season in the league on that rainy night at Giants Stadium, only to crumble, opening the way for Salt Lake’s run to the MLS Cup. How things could have been so different.