For all intents and purposes, Saturday will mark the final home match of the 2014 season for Toronto FC.
A year that began with such hope and promise, sustained through the first four months of the season, came unraveled with the return of the league from the World Cup hiatus, devolving into an all-too-familiar downward spiral.
While it will largely be remembered as a disappointment, important steps were made. New club records were established, a workable core has been installed, and a viable institution behind the scenes has begun to take shape – presuming they do not blow it all up in the off-season; that it took eight years to address such issues is troublesome in its own right, but such is life as a TFC supporter.
Toronto playoff hopes sit on life-support, stuck in sixth-place in the East, a full six points behind Columbus with two matches remaining.
Dim hopes of a first-ever post-season birth will be snuffed out should the Crew pick up a single point in their remaining two matches or TFC fail to collect the full six points available – making matters even less stomachable, there is a good chance the agony will go into the final weekend with Columbus bound for New York this round, a difficult prospect as TFC well knows, before ending their season back at home against Philadelphia.
As if that fact were not galling enough, Vancouver is a single point away from ensuring themselves a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League for 2015-16, the spot, due to a scheduling shift in the tournament, will be decided by points tallied this season in MLS. The Whitecaps travel to San Jose this weekend and end the year at home against Colorado.
That final match day will see Toronto take the pitch in New England – no slouches themselves – but first is this final home match against the Montreal Impact.
Having already met three times this season – once in the league and twice in the Canadian Championship – not to mention regularly over the past several years, these two clubs are well-familiar with each other. With both all but out, pride is on the line; a notion that never falls flat when these two fierce foes tangle.
There will be plenty of time for sourness and post-mortems when November comes round; while there are matches to be played, enjoy them for what they are. All that said, a closer look at this week’s opponent, the Montreal Impact is in order.
It has been two and a half months since the clubs last met at the beginning of August; a span of time that has not been particularly kind to either.
Montreal has played eleven matches over than span, accumulating a record of three wins, five losses, and three draws to see them sit at the basement of both the Eastern Conference and the league with 26 points from 32 matches.
Tough to believe, but taking points in six of their last eleven is actually an improvement over a difficult 2014; Montreal will enter Saturday’s match unbeaten in two games and three of their last four.
The loss against Toronto in August was the sixth-straight in a run of seven losses, losing the following weekend 2-1 in Philadelphia. It also marked the start of a very busy stretch, with CONCACAF Champions League games as well as league commitments – they kicked off their campaign with a home game against Salvadorean side CD FAS in-between MLS losses, winning 1-0.
That losing streak would come to an end the following round, defeating Chicago 1-0 in Montreal. They would lose again the next weekend, 4-2 in New York, but not before firming up their CONCACAF chances with a 2-3 win away to FAS.
Buoyed by that confidence, the Impact would win a second league match in three, defeating the Crew at Stade Saputo by a 2-0 score-line, only to stumble once more on the road, losing 3-2 to the Dynamo in Houston.
A midweek 2-2 draw against LA would follow, preceding another defeat, this time 2-1 in New England, before the crucial CONCACAF match, against New York, would see Montreal put themselves into the driver’s seat for Champions League progression with a 1-0 home win.
Three days after that success would come another, defeating San Jose 2-0, with Jack McInerney and Dilly Duka scoring in the final ten minutes.
They would receive good news that week, as New York failed to win in their trip to El Salvador, thereby guaranteeing Montreal a spot in the next round of CONCACAF play.
One week after defeating San Jose, Montreal would fall by that same score-line in Columbus, Ethan Finlay scoring the first after just two minutes and Federico Higuain adding the second in the 58th from the penalty spot. Montreal had a chance of their own from the spot, only for Steve Clark to deny Marco Di Vaio in stoppage-time.
A pair of draws in succession would lead them into this weekend’s match, playing to a dour score-less draw in Chicago and twice allowing New England to come back on Saturday last. Di Vaio put the Impact in the lead in both the 12th and 39th minutes, only for Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen to respond in the 16th and 69th respectively.
As such, the Impact will enter Saturday’s match unbeaten in two, but winless in three.
Montreal are at risk of becoming the sixth MLS team to go an entire regular season without winning a single road match, with a record of zero wins, twelve losses, and four draws; having scored just thirteen goals and conceded 33.
The match in Toronto is their final chance to amend that wrong – they will close the season with a home match against DC on October 25. Prior to drawing against the Fire, the Impact had lost their previous eight road matches, stretching back to June 25 in Vancouver, the match that resumed MLS play after the World Cup break.
August 2 Montreal 0: Toronto 2
With Montreal having taken the Voyageurs’ Cup two months earlier, TFC found a bit of revenge with the two-goal victory on their rivals’ pitch.
Gilberto opened the scoring after eleven minutes, first-timing a blast past Troy Perkins after Michael Bradley found Dominic Oduro wide on the right, who picked out the Brazilian with his ball into the middle.
Toronto would double their advantage in the 54th minute, again Bradley finding Oduro wide on the right, after a somewhat controversial non-call of a foul on Di Vaio. Oduro tried to square the ball, but Perkins got a piece of it; fortunately for Toronto Luke Moore followed it up, touching in as the keeper scrambled back.
The 0-2 win was Toronto’s second-straight league win over Montreal, stretching their unbeaten run to three matches.
Predicting how Montreal manager, Frank Klopas will approach this match is a difficult task. There are two main unilateral bodies of thought on how to play out the string: either play youngsters and those on the fringes in order to evaluate them for next season or field the first team to see out the year with a measure of pride.
Klopas has done both and neither; mixing and matching the two strategies, an equally valid response.
With more-or-less a full complement of players to choose from and no suspensions, he has plenty of options; their upcoming match in New York on Wednesday in Champions League play is a dead rubber, so no need to hold starters for then.
As such, their projected lineup is as follows: Evan Bush in goal; from right to left – Hassoun Camara, Matteo Ferrari, Heath Pearce, and Krzysztof Krol across the back; Felipe and Calum Mallace sitting in midfield with Justin Mapp, Dilly Duka, and Andres Romero further ahead; Marco Di Vaio will take up the sole striker’s position.
Bush has seen the majority of action over the past few months, but Troy Perkins, who was first choice for much of the season, is a candidate to return in goal.
Plenty of options across the back, as Wandrille Lefevre could start in place of Heath Pearce, while Maxim Tissot, Eric Miller, Karl Ouimette, and even Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, nominally a midfielder, are candidates for full-back slots.
Patrice Bernier has returned from his injury layoff and had he gotten a few more minutes under his belt before Saturday would likely be a starter. Mallace has done well in his absence, so should hold the spot. Gagnon-Lapare and Basque midfielder Gorka Larrea are also available should Klopas opt to mix things up or go with a more defensive mindset. Another homegrown signing, Louis Beland-Goyette made his debut in New England, but has not seen much time since.
Tissot has seen a good deal of action on the left of the attacking three in midfield, while Anthony Jackson-Hamel joined the first team midseason and has shown well in his limited minutes. Yet another Canadian, Issey Nakajima-Farran, who was traded to the Impact by TFC, is a candidate for some minutes; he has looked lively from the bench in recent weeks and did well against Colombia on Tuesday. Romero can take the field on either flank, so should Mapp not go, he could swap over to the right to open up space for Tissot.
Then there is Ignacio Piatti, the recently-acquired designated player, who has not seen any action in three weeks. He has been troubled with some knee tendonitis and looking for a short-term loan to represent his former club, San Lorenzo, in the FIFA Club World Cup – it fell through, so it is difficult to tell if he will be available, having never been officially mentioned as injured. If he is included, expect him to start on the left of midfield.
In attack, Jack McInerney is the other recognized striker on the books, but given a mini-farewell tour for Di Vaio, having announced he will retire at the end of the season, there is little reason to assume the Italian would not start.
With his retirement looming, Di Vaio turned back the clock with a scintillating two-goal performance against New England last Saturday, taking both of his strikes with the clinical quality and vivaciousness that belied his decision to hang up his boots.
His first was an awesome finish, latching on to a long ball out of the back from Mallace, but his second was pure predatory class, allowing a Romero ball from the left to run across his back, fully abusing the sanity of New England centre-back Jose Goncalves before leaving keeper Bobby Shuttleworth to helplessly watch as his strike kicked in, unreachable, off the base of the back-post:
Glorious stuff; pure class from the Italian.
Now Toronto should be familiar with Di Vaio’s threat by now, drifting wide to the left and a big fan of driving into the box, cutting inside onto his right-foot to go across the keeper.
He thrives off isolation, backing himself to go one on one with defenders and so the pass that puts him there should be the focus in preventing such exploits. Mallace’s long ball led to his first, while his second came from Romero swinging an inviting pass in from the flank. Toronto would be well-served to be aware that if the ball doesn’t make it to the striker, he cannot do damage.
It is of course easier said than done, and McInerney can finish with the best of them as well; his goal against Houston was ridiculous.
Montreal makes very good use of attacking from wide positions to gain ground before turning in-field on goal. Mapp is as tricky as they come in MLS and Romero has shown glimpses of real quality, if a lack of consistency. Both will look to cut in onto their shooting foot or take the outside to send balls into the area and must be contained.
Added to their threat is the resurgence of Dilly Duka, a Klopas prospect that he first brought to Chicago and then to Montreal. Duka, who was highly-touted coming into the league, has never really found his feet until recently in Montreal, accumulating three goals and two assists in his twelve appearances.
With Felipe dropping back to play as a deep-lying playmaker, Duka has taken up that central attacking role and been lively doing so. Abusing Sam Cronin to score this goal after linking up with Di Vaio against San Jose:
The more one looks at Montreal’s pieces, the more bizarre their season of woes appears.
With so much attacking talent, a mix of speed, intelligence, and quality, it should come as no surprise that they can be devastating on the counter – here Piatti caps off a lightning attack against the Galaxy:
His goal against Columbus was perhaps a better representation of his skill and finish, similarly on the counter, but less a team effort.
Staying sharp in possession and organized at the back will go a long way towards quelling those threats, but without Michael Bradley and Nick Hagglund, Toronto will be hard pressed by a Montreal side eager to close out this terrible season on a high.
So with such terrifying prospects going forward how has Montreal slumped to the bottom of the league? Simple answer is defending.
In a game of such fine margins, the occasional error resulting in a goal for the opponent is a virtual death sentence. Consider Lee Nguyen’s winner from last month in New England; a poor stretch of passing, shockingly including Bernier, results in a turnover and then a series of marginally-too-late interventions, mistakes, misreads, and missteps results in a simple finish for the Revs’ talisman:
Montreal will commit at least one such blunder a match, a costly habit.
Part of the problem has been a lack of consistency due to a raft of injuries, which decreases cohesion at the back. Add in a new keeper and communication falters too. Making matters more difficult, Montreal has a lot of younger players at depth across the back-line, so if one starter goes down, there is not a lot of experience to step in.
One symptom of such struggles is a general inability to handle movement – a further pair of Revolution goals, one of the league’s best at cyclical attacks, will highlight these frailties.
Rowe’s equalizer in the 16th minute was a result of poor communication, task management, and awareness. Six Montreal defenders are undone by a one-two between two New England attackers on the edge of the box, nobody deals with either the passes or the runs, allowing Rowe clear in to finish:
Camara even backs off the action, wary of a ball towards the back-side, further ensuring Rowe a clear path to goal.
Toronto is capable of breaking through such lines, especially should they be confronted by such a static opponent, but without Bradley the killer pass is less available. Luke Moore has shown himself to operate very well in those tight spaces, while Kyle Bekker and Jonathan Osorio could pick up the playmaking duties.
That same confusion and disjointed movement also opens up space for shots from range - note how deep the back-line has dropped here, allowing acres of space for Rowe to hit having forced a turnover when Jackson-Hamel tried to push a ball past him in a dangerous place. Gagnon-Lapare was a little to slow to close down the space.
Toronto has not done enough from distance this season, but both Jackson, king of the audacious attempt from range (and the odd deflected goal) and Gilberto are capable from that range. Moore has it in him too, as does Osorio and Jermain Defoe; and heck, even Bekker is due.
It is very surprising that Toronto has neither tried nor been more successful from range with those sorts of threats.
Now TFC is nowhere near as good as New England at scything through an opponent, but Gyasi Zardes’ goal from a recent meeting does show another option – the man at the back-post:
One other consequence of back-line struggles is incredibly unmarked players in good positions; the ability to regain shape after one passage has passed in preparation for the next is the mark of a solid defensive unit. Never mind losing Zardes - that will happen, but there are four Galaxy attackers waiting at the back for a ball. Count them, FOUR; with only Lefevre on hand - that is the definition of a defensive collapse and from such a nothing play as well.
Toronto needs to take advantage of those chances, commit numbers forward and make note of such imbalances. Not that there is any reason to think they will change their ways this late in the season.
This is the second league meeting between the clubs this season, with Toronto having won the first 0-2 in Montreal. The two also met in the Voyageurs’ Cup final, drawing 1-1 in Toronto before a late strike saw the return leg end 1-0 to the Impact in Montreal, allowing Montreal to move on to the Champions League.
The teams have met seven times in league play with Toronto winning three, Montreal winning two, and drawing a further two. For what it’s worth, Toronto has won the last two and gone unbeaten through three – again, in the league.
Three of those matches have been played in Toronto, where the Impact have drawn twice before TFC won the most recent meeting, 1-0 in the final round of last season, with Robert Earnshaw scoring the game’s only goal.