This is not how it was supposed to end.
Toronto’s 2014 season will close with a whimper and yet another season without the playoffs – the eighth, if one needs reminding, as they head to New England for a match on Saturday.
There is no mathematical wizardry that will unmake this reality; even the CONCACAF Champions League has passed TFC by for another season – Vancouver earning the spot by dint of their MLS record; the draws last weekend (Toronto against Montreal and Vancouver in San Jose) ensured that the Whitecaps would represent Canada in the regional club tournament’s 2015-16 edition.
So what’s the point? Well, for Toronto, pride, closing the season on a positive, bidding farewell to Jermain Defoe and perhaps others - not that any of those salve the wounds; for New England however, bound for the playoffs for the second-straight season under Jay Heaps, having not made it for three years from 2010 to 2012, this game matters, but not as much as it could have.
Their hard-fought win in Houston last round guaranteed the Revolution would finish the season in second-place in the East, ensuring themselves home-field advantage in the conference semifinals.
Despite all the disappointment, the twists and turns, the firings and abandonments, it has been another engaging season. Sad as it is to say, this club, for all its fault and failures, has a way of keeping itself in the headlines. Manic in its projections, depressive in its results, once one swallows the little red pill, it’s a hell of a ride.
For the final time this season, a closer look at this week’s opponent, the New England Revolution is in order.
New England enter Saturday’s match as one of the form teams in the league, unbeaten in their last four matches and having lost just once in eleven matches.
Their last meeting with Toronto – a 0-3 win at BMO Field on the last day of August – came right at the start of that good run.
After a slow start out of the gates, their season built, culminating in a five-game winning streak that saw them surge to the top of the East, only for a run of eight-straight losses to dampen their spirits with the onset of summer.
The win over Toronto was the second in a run of five straight that continued with home wins over Kansas City (3-1), Chicago (2-1), and Montreal (2-1). The Revolution would lose their next outing 0-1 in Columbus before returning to winning ways with a 2-3 win in Kansas City to end September, beginning their current unbeaten run.
October would open with a 2-1 win over Columbus: Lee Nguyen opened the scoring in the 20th minute, only for Ethan Finlay to respond five minutes later; Jermaine Jones would find the winner in the 67th minute – scoring his second-straight late game-winner.
A 2-2 draw in Montreal would follow; Marco Di Vaio put the Impact ahead, only for Kelyn Rowe to equalize four minutes after the opening goal in the 12th minute. Montreal would retake the lead before half-time, setting the stage for Nguyen’s equalizer in the 69th minute.
Last Thursday in a rematch of those classic MLS Cup Finals – befitting of Dominic Kinnear’s last home match with the club he served so dutifully, the Revolution got the win over their tormentors, the Houston Dynamo, 1-2 in Houston. The Dynamo took the lead in the 37th minute, but a Nguyen brace in the final half hour, scoring goals in the 65th and 87th minutes overturned the result.
August 30 Toronto 0 – New England 3
With Toronto sitting comfortably in third and New England in sixth – how times have changed (sigh), the two sides took to the pitch at the Exhibition Grounds.
It took just two minutes for the Revolution to take the lead, Nguyen pouncing on a loose pass from Mark Bloom to Michael Bradley, allowing the midfielder to saunter unfettered towards goal, right-foot a shot to the bottom left-corner of the goal past Joe Bendik.
Rowe would double their advantage in the 21st minute, cutting out another weak pass – this time from Bradley Orr to Dominic Oduro – touching to Nguyen, who flicked a return ball into the path of Rowe’s in-field run, skipping past Bradley’s challenge to find a pocket of space. With TFC slow to close him down, Rowe unleashed a right-footed bomb from some thirty yards across Bendik to the left-side netting.
The rout was complete in the 58th minute when Teal Bunbury added the third. Bradley’s pass bounced off the referee, falling to Rowe who blew past Collen Warner before laying Charlie Davies in down the left-side of the area, unselfishly squaring a ball across to the back-post for his late arriving teammate to finish with a simple right-footed touch. TFC barely bothered to chase back.
It is somewhat serendipitous that TFC’s season will end with a trip to the Revs, as it was this loss that precipitated the fallout between Ryan Nelsen and Tim Bezbatchenko over comments of ‘must-win games’ and whatnot - a definite turning point of the season.
With a few minor injuries and only an outdated injury list available, their lineup for Saturday is further complicated by the fact that as the result will have no impact on where they finish, Heaps has it at his discretion to rest several starters, giving minutes to squad players, in preparation for their first playoff match, set to be played on either November 1 or 2.
He did just such a thing, sort of, last Thursday, giving starts to Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann. Countering that possibility, is the advantage of entering the playoffs on a positive note, closing the season with a good home win over beleaguered Toronto. Of course, potential injury to key and tired players after a long season will be a consideration as well.
Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Bobby Shuttleworth in goal; from right to left Kevin Alston, AJ Soares, Jose Goncalves, and Darius Barnes across the back; Scott Caldwell will hold at the base, while Steve Neumann, Daigo Kobayshi, Lee Nguyen, and Diego Fagundez will line up across the top of the midfield; Patrick Mullins will again lead the line up top.
There are plenty of options at Heaps’ disposal, should he choose to change it up.
Brad Knighton could take up the starting keeper’s spot, giving Shuttleworth a chance to have an extended rest before the post-season begins.
Options are few on the back-line, centre-back Stephen McCarthy is out, while left-back Chris Tierney is questionable; added to those concerns, Andrew Farrell was forced out of their match in Houston when caught by a biting Jermaine Taylor tackle – he was replaced by Alston, himself listed as questionable at the time. The only other defender on their roster is Jossimar Sanchez, who has not featured all season.
Jermaine Jones could step into Caldwell’s defensive midfield role, but may as well give him a bit of rest, seeing as he is still adjusting to MLS after a World Cup and European season. Andy Dorman was on the bench, returning from a knee injury that robbed him of much of the season, and he may well see some time. Shalrie Joseph is listed as out.
Fagundez has been left out of the last four starting lineups and could benefit from a solid outing, while Rowe and Nguyen are vital pieces that may be kept out of the fray as a precaution. Bunbury missed out in Houston with some hamstring tightness and there is little need to rush him back.
The Revs have a lot of options for those outside attacking positions and the striker’s spot. Midseason acquisitions Tony Taylor and Geoffrey Castrillon have found chances to break into the lineup few and far between, as have Dimitry Imbongo and Andre Akpan, who joined in a trade that saw Sair Sene head to New York.
Nguyen is without doubt the primary threat with seventeen goals – a new club record for goals from a midfielder – and five assists on the season.
He has been in scintillating form for much of the season, especially so of late, scoring in their last three matches and collecting points in their last four – crazy to think he was picked up on waivers when Vancouver let him go just weeks after he joined the club for preseason.
Aside from insane vision – his goal against Montreal, though deflected, was madness – he has a knack for popping up in the right spots, especially when arriving late to find space at the top of the box, as he did for his first against Houston:
New England will often use width to advance the ball, before looking to find runners in the box. Should he play, Toronto will be hard pressed to keep a lid on his exuberant talents.
When not using width, the Revolution are one of the best teams in the league at slicing through the middle, devising cunning modes of interplay to break through even the most sturdy of defenses. Their close control and ability to pick a through-ball combined with their ceaseless hunger to make those runs makes them a very difficult foe to dissuade.
Consider Rowe’s goal against Montreal, responding just four minutes after the Impact took the lead, where three Revs attackers outwit six defenders:
That constant probing combined with endless movement make them very difficult, twisting up defenders, getting them unbalanced and moving in the wrong direction will no doubt cause TFC defenders some trouble. It is very important that runners are tracked, and passing lanes are clogged, while at the same time wide defenders must be cautious of allowing too much space for the full-backs to get into the play – on the above clip, Justin Mapp’s lack of coverage on Tierney sneaking up the left caused Hassoun Camara to back away from the middle, clearing Rowe’s path to goal.
As if all that were not enough, if defenders are not active enough in closing down the ball, New England are more than capable of striking from range. Nguyen, Rowe, and Jones, who has proven himself a goal threat in his short-time with the club – he has two goals and four assists in nine appearances – are all capable of hitting from range.
Nguyen and Rowe exhibited those skills in their last meeting with Toronto, while Jones struck a late winner of Kansas City with this low drive:
Of course the difficulty lies in finding the balance between pressing forward to close down the ball-carrier, while not leaving oneself open to being opened wide by passing – a difficult task no doubt that TFC will definitely struggle with on the weekend. Expect Bradley and Kyle Bekker or Collen Warner, as well as Steven Caldwell and either Nick Hagglund or Doneil Henry to have their hands full.
For all their attacking threat, New England can be had at the back, conceding the third-most goals of any playoff-bound side with 46 allowed – only New York in the East and Seattle in the West (each with fifty against) have conceded more.
For all their pace moving forward, the Revolution can be a little slow-footed at the back, especially in the centre when their full-backs are caught forward. Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio abused each centre-back – Soares and Goncalves - in turn in their recent meeting, first making a run off the back of a helpless Soares, who could not keep close to the striker on a wonderful long ball from Calum Mallace, and then discombobulating Goncalves by letting a Felipe ball run across his back before thumping a finish in off the post having ushered his shot past a helpless Shuttleworth:
Toronto’s best bet for a goal on Saturday will be in getting the ball forward quickly – something they have struggled with all season – to isolate a forward one-on-one with a back-peddling defender. It would come as no surprise if Defoe went out with a goal; while Gilberto is due for one.
Those same vulnerabilities can be seen in the tracking – or lack thereof – of runners. Watch how Paulo Nagamura, of all people, peels off the attentions of Goncalves to make a run inside the left-back, latching onto a long through-ball from centre-back Kevin Ellis before bending a finish around the keeper:
Toronto has both the speed and the passing ability to make such plays, but has rarely shown the sort of cohesion and willingness to get forward required to make hay. Without the suspended Jonathan Osorio – Dwayne De Rosario too will miss out having received disciplinary action for his can-opener on Camara last weekend – Toronto lacks that attacking midfield dynamism that Nagamura is so good at, but, again, Defoe and Gilberto – theoretically at least, maybe even Luke Moore, are capable of those runs.
With so many numbers willing to commit forward, the Revolution are susceptible to quick breaks in the other direction, which can combine with shoddy marking and threat awareness to provide openings.
A quick counter from Kansas City forced the New England defenses to back-peddle, Goncalves dove into a challenge high, further fracturing the cohesion of the back-line. Toni’s quick ball to the back-post turned the heads of all the defenders, two of whom – Farrell and Goncalves were too busy ball-watching to do anything about the presence of Dom Dwyer – KC’s top scorer – before it was too late:
Again, Toronto has the ability, but has shown little of the initiative to craft such chances for themselves; it remains to be seen how up for the game they are on Saturday. There is a certain amount of desire and pride that it takes to become a professional athlete, so one should rarely doubt they want it, but confidence plays a huge role in seeing all the practice pay off in-game; Toronto is a team very low on confidence, with players questioning their future, hardly a good omen.
This will be the third meeting of the season between the two, New England having won both matches in Toronto – 1-2 in May and 0-3 in August.
The clubs have met eighteen times in MLS play, Toronto winning four, New England seven, and drawing the other seven encounters. The Revs have won the last two and are unbeaten in three – having drawn the final meeting of 2013, 1-1 in Toronto.
Nine of those matches have been played in the Greater Boston Area, with the Revolution winning five, Toronto two, and drawing the remaining pair. Both of TFC’s wins have come in their last three trips, winning 0-1 in 2012 and 2013, on goals from Luis Silva and Matias Laba respectively, with New England winning in-between 2-0 on goals from Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo.
Boston is indeed strong; so too is Canada.