Five games left; five games that will determine whether this grand experiment bears post-season fruit or ends in bloody disaster.
A modest three-game unbeaten run has helped Toronto to turn what looked like doom just weeks ago into potential – their fate is in their own hands, but the path will not be an easy one.
The late draw in Chicago and subsequent wins over Chivas and Portland have shown that the side is not yet ready to concede defeat, clawing their way back within reach of the playoff spots - currently sitting in sixth place on 40 points from 29 matches, still with a game in hand, one point behind New York in fifth and three behind Columbus in fourth.
A difficult stretch of three matches in a week begins on Saturday with the most troublesome of fixtures: a visit to high-flying Los Angeles, undoubtedly the hottest team in the league.
The club will return to home to face Houston on Wednesday, before yet another critical six-pointer when they head to New York, to face the Red Bulls, no slouches themselves, at least when they are at home.
But first things first; a long flight to California.
Perennial contenders, the Galaxy have been ramping up for the post-season over the last two months, surging up alongside Seattle, tied on 57 points from thirty matches, equal in both Western and league supremacy.
Saturday is not a must-win game, mathematically there is still time, but every point keeps that door open, while every defeat sees the window of opportunity shut ever-so slightly.
A closer look at this weekend’s enemy, the Los Angeles Galaxy, is in order.
Having been knocked out by Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Semifinals last season – they won the first leg, but lost the second on the road in added time to a 102nd-minute Chris Schuler goal, Bruce Arena opted for small renovations rather than wholesale changes. Any team with the likes of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and Omar Gonzalez need only shift the peripheral pieces to see progress.
Options were declined – on the likes of Colin Clark, Laurent Courtois, and somewhat surprisingly Sean Franklin, who made his way to DC – while Pablo Mastroeni and Kyle Nakazawa retired. Experienced European keeper, Carlo Cudicini, saw his contract terminated, Michael Stephens saw his expire, and Hector Jimenez and Greg Cochrane were seen as surplus to requirement, traded to Columbus and Chicago, respectively, with draft picks and allocation headed the other way.
In their places entered a pair of target forwards, an attempt to add another facet to LA’s game, with Brazilian Samuel and Canadian Rob Friend brought in – Samuel’s loan has since ended and Friend has been sidelined with concussion issues for some time now.
Baggio Husidic, a former MLS midfielder, returned to the league from a spell in Europe, while Swedish playmaker Stefan Ishizaki was recruited to provide a little more creative spark. In place of the departing Franklin and Cochrane, Arena turned to MLS veterans James Riley and TFC-Legend Dan Gargan.
As the season got underway, a raft of fringe youth was loaned to Los Dos, or more formally, LA Galaxy II, their ‘farm-team’ in USL PRO, and Jose Villarreal, a very talent homegrown player, spent some time away with Cruz Azul before returning to the Galaxy.
Midway through the season, Kofi Opare, another player with Canadian linkages, was sent to DC United along with a draft pick for second place in the allocation ranking, indicating that the Galaxy were planning a dead-line move – rumoured to be Sacha Kljestan, or perhaps Mix Diskerud (though he looked more likely bound for Columbus); a move that never materialized, much to the chagrin of Arena.
They did manage to secure former-Beckham-days-Galaxy forward, Alan Gordon, from San Jose in exchange for allocation, and he has turned out to be quite the last-minute signing, with four goals in ten appearances with his ‘new’ club.
Aside from Todd Dunivant, another former Red, who has struggled with injury for most of the season – currently nursing a groin tear – it appears as though Arena will have his entire squad from which to choose. It should be said that LA are, of all the clubs in MLS, the least forthcoming with injury reports, so such projections must be taken with a grain of salt.
As such, their projected lineup is as follows: Jaime Penedo in goal; from right to left – Dan Gargan, Omar Gonzalez, AJ DeLaGarza, and Robbie Rogers across the back-line; Baggio Husidic, Marcelo Sarvas, Juninho, and Landon Donovan through the midfield, with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes paired up top.
For however impressive that lineup – and their form – is, LA does not have a ton of depth, and injury (heaven forbid) to one of their key players would be a significant blow to their MLS Cup aspirations.
Brian Rowe has deputized for Penedo well whenever called upon, getting an extended run out while the Panamanian was away at the Copa Centroamericana, collecting a win and two draws in his three matches.
Dunivant’s recurring absences forced Robbie Rogers, nominally a midfielder, back into the left-back spot, which he has very much made his own. He is a little vulnerable defensively, but can be devastating on the overlap with his wide attacker instincts.
DeLaGarza is an option at full-back – and a touch more solid a defender – which opens up a central spot for either Leonardo or Tommy Meyer. Arena has an unnatural affinity for Leonardo, who is moments away from a major gaffe at all times, and Meyer is still raw, though the manager’s faith in them both was enough to deem Opare expendable.
In midfield, Ishizaki is regularly the first off the bench, Husidic preferred of late as his improved two-way play offers a nice counterbalance to Donovan’s attacking play on the left. The Latin central pairing has rarely been disrupted, but Ishizaki, Husidic, Donovan, or even Keane can take up one of those central spots if desired.
Up top, Gordon is the obvious change of pace, should Arena deem this the match to tinker with a pristine and rolling lineup – he won’t – while Chandler Hoffman has lit up USL, but rarely gotten minutes with the first team.
A handful of young players have been largely limited to fringe squad roles, but enthusiastic MLS observers should remember the names Bradford Jamieson IV, Jack McBean, Raul Mendiola, and Kenney Walker, amongst others.
The Galaxy currently sit in second place in the West and league, tied with the Sounders on points, but trailing by dint of having two fewer wins than Seattle – wins being the first tie-breaker.
Unfortunately for TFC, LA enter as the form-team in the league, winners of two-straight, unbeaten in their last nine, and with just two losses in their last fourteen matches.
And it all began rather bizarrely for the Galaxy, who much like Toronto, saw the first two months of their season littered with bye-weeks, only playing five matches through March and April - though they did have a Champions League series against Club Tijuana, winning 1-0 at home only to fall 4-2 across the border the following week.
Having won two, drawn two, and lost one, May began with a defeat in Colorado, before drawing away to Portland and losing once more in Houston. Wins against Dallas and Philadelphia followed in short order before a pair of draws – away to Chicago and back home against Chivas took them into the World Cup break.
During the hiatus, they would win their first US Open Cup match, 1-2 away to Arizona United, before falling in the next round, 1-0 in Carolina against the RailHawks – Arena was not pleased at having to crisscross the nation once more.
When league action resumed, LA was more than ready for it – in fact, they have lost just twice since then.
A 0-1 win in San Jose was followed by a 2-2 draw against Portland. They would win the next two four days apart, 1-0 over Salt Lake and 5-1 against New England, taking revenge for last season’s 5-0 defeat at the Revolution, only to stumble in their third match of the week, losing 2-1 in Kansas City.
Nine days of rest later they would break out again in Seattle, winning 0-3, returning home, on short rest once more, for a 3-1 win over Portland, as August began. A 2-2 draw against San Jose made way for an uncharacteristic 4-1 loss in Columbus – their most recent loss. Date: August 16.
Responding to that challenge, the Galaxy would rattle off five straight-wins, 3-4 in Colorado, 2-0 over Vancouver, 4-1 over DC, 0-3 away to Chivas, closing the run with a 6-0 thumping of Colorado in Los Angeles at the start of September.
A packed schedule would trouble them once more, drawing 2-2 to basement dwellers Montreal after starting the match with an experimental back-three, conceding goals to Marco Di Vaio and Ignacio Piatti, before storming back - with a back-four - in the second half through Zardes and Gordon strikes within a five-minute span.
They would drop further points just four days later, taking the lead through Gonzalez in San Jose, only to pass up the chance to pad the advantage when Keane missed a first-half penalty kick, allowing Chris Wondolowski to level in the 66th minute, securing the 1-1 draw.
A 2-1 win over a depleted Dallas would follow, Oscar Pareja opting to leave Matt Hedges and Fabian Castillo out. Blas Perez scored the first of the game at the start of the second half, only for Keane to equalize in short order, setting the stage for Gordon’s 84th minute winner.
Most recently, the Galaxy absolutely dismantled the Red Bulls, handing New York a 4-0 loss on Sunday that saw Keane notch a brace – opening the scoring after eight minutes and closing the night in the 82nd with the fourth – sandwiching strikes by Donovan and Zardes.
Three assists from Donovan on the night drew him level with Steve Ralston on 135 all-time assists, as the retiring captain hunts down one more record.
No doubt Toronto will have their hands full with such a talented squad, who lead the league in goals scored (63) and goals against (31) – a formidable combination.
But, as with all teams, there gaps to be exploited – that is, if one can get the ball.
Part Two, reviewing the game-film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted first thing tomorrow morning.