While many are feeling on top of the world with Toronto FC picking up wins in their first two matches of the season (for the first time in the club’s tumultuous history), there is still much work to be done.
An honest assessment of both wins, leaving aside all the hype and hyperbole, reveals substantial gaps in play that must be corrected to really contend in 2014.
The journey resumes on Saturday with a tricky away fixture in Utah, to face Real Salt Lake.
Perennial contenders, Salt Lake may have had to replace club figurehead, Jason Kreis, who left – to take the helm at fledgling NYC FC - in the off-season, but they have barely missed a step through three matches this season.
Internal hire, Jeff Cassar, who formerly served as goalkeeping coach, and his reconstituted bevy of MLS-experienced assistant coaches – including some familiar names: Andy Williams, Craig Waibel, and Paul Dalglish - have assumed the mantle of leadership over a group of players that retained the successful core of seasons past.
Everybody knows the story of Salt Lake, everybody knows what they are going to do – the trick is… can they be stopped.
In that spirit, a closer look at the enemy, Real Salt Lake, is in order.
While most MLS clubs were doing the usual off-season shuffle, bringing in new pieces and shuttling out the old, Salt Lake held firm with the decisions that have seen them rise to prominence since the surprise run to win the MLS Cup in 2009.
The club added just two players – yes, two – in the off-season, while five made their way out the door – four were out of contract and Lovel Palmer was traded to Chicago for allocation money.
For TFC, the match - the only meeting of the season - comes at a fortuitous time.
Alvaro Saborio may have avoided disciplinary action for his late hit on LA’s AJ DeLaGarza – much to the chagrin of Ryan Nelsen, but still the ranks of Salt Lake are decimated by injury, especially their forward battery.
Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval are both still recovering from off-season surgeries (knee and foot, respectively) and are listed as out.
Red-hot Joao Plata, who has two goals and two assists, through three matches (one-in-six, eh?) left their weekend match in the 36th minute with a hamstring strain that will reportedly see him out for three weeks (or so he says on twitter – no lessons learned there; unless it's a trap).
3 Weeks out # hamstring !!3 semanas fuera de las canchas ..#posterior.. pic.twitter.com/M1LGaNnkNo— Joao Plata (@JoaoPlata10) March 24, 2014
It is not just up top that the injury bug has bitten – all through the lineup there are concerns.
That said, their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Nick Rimando in goal; from right to left – Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, and Chris Wingert across the back; Kyle Beckerman holding with Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales and Luis Gil through the midfield; Alvaro Saborio will pair up top with Olmes Garcia.
There is a slight concern over Javier Morales, who played through a back injury against LA. Should he be unavailable, expect Gil to switch into the middle and Luke Mulholland – one of those off-season acquisitions, an excellent one at that – to slot in at one of the wide midfield positions. Expect to see Mulholland at some point either way.
Schuler too played through a concern, his ankle, last Saturday, if he is unavailable, either Carlos Salcedo or Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who is nursing a knee problem of his own, will take his place.
Unbeaten through three matches, Salt Lake has taken five points with a win and two draws; good enough for fourth place in the West – not that standings matter very much at this point.
They opened the season with a 0-1 victory at LA on the strength of a Plata strike, breaking the off-side trap and finishing past Jamie Penedo in the 80th minute. But needed the help of a stoppage-time penalty kick save from Rimando, denying Keane from the spot after Rob Friend was adjudged to have been fouled by Beltran in the box, to see out the result.
The following weekend they continued their California voyage with a match in San Jose, drawing 3-3 courtesy of some late Earthquake rumblings.
Chris Wondolowski opened the scoring after just six minutes, walking in a Shea Salinas free-kick after Victor Bernardez flicked on the service, but Beckerman would draw Salt Lake level five minutes later with a low shot from distance that kissed off the base of the post.
Plata struck again in the 32nd minute, strolling into the box from the left-side and finding space for a low shot before Mulholland added a third for the Lakers in the fourth minute of first half stoppage-time, putting the rebound from a blistering Grabavoy fizzler into the open net.
But true to form, San Jose launched balls into the box and found joy – Bernardez headed in a Salinas corner kick in the 75th and then added a second in the fifth minute of injury time to level after a bouncing ball in the box fell to his feet.
Last weekend, they bizarrely faced LA once more, drawing 1-1 at the Rio Tinto Stadium.
Plata again was a factor, collecting the ball on the left from a short Morales free-kick, and then picking out a ridiculously unmarked Saborio at the far-post to take the lead in the 19th minute.
But a midfield turnover allowed Juninho to play Robbie Keane into space down the right, where he shimmied past Schuler and beat Rimando with a fine finish in the 34th.
Part Two of the series will be released early tomorrow (Friday) going over the game film for strengths and weaknesses, as well as highlighting some interesting factoids heading into Saturday’s match.
Be sure to check back regularly for the rest of Waking the Red’s stellar pre-game coverage.