Whee...well it's been a hell of a week hasn't it? Fresh off the (not unsurprising) loss to Real Salt Lake our Reds are set to journey to the heart of Ohio. The scene of record setting away support from Reds fans, taserings and many, many losses. What's not to look forward to?
The Crew have always been one of those teams that TFC have struggled against, which is likely the only thing (other than proximity) that has added any ire to this rivalry/made-up cup competition. Only once (2011) have Toronto managed to get enough points from Columbus to take home that dubious piece of silverware. Regardless of how made up this rivalry is it has developed into a point of pride as one of those teams that always beats us. Yes I know that describes most of the league but this one does tend to rankle year after year.
And now if there was ever a game that I would pretty much declare a loss waiting to happen, it's this one against that yellow team. Led by frequent TFC killer Federico Higuain (remember that gorgeous free kick against Cesar in preseason?), Toronto will be lucky to get any kind of result at Crew Stadium. Especially given what will be the patchwork nature of the starting XI.
Oh the lineup - this is going to be an interesting one. Toronto are going into this match missing their leading (well, only) scorer in Jermain Defoe to a hamstring injury; their CB pairing due to the suspension handed down to Steven Caldwell by the DisCo and a knee injury to Doneil Henry ,and with Jonathan Osorio still questionable. Scary stuff. The spine of the defence, the best midfield partner for Michael Bradley and the leading scorer - all out. I say again, whee...
It's not that Ryan Nelsen doesn't have options at his disposal, it's that the options aren't exactly exciting. The defence is the most worrisome - Caldwell and Henry have been a solid pairing and look to be blossoming into something really exciting to watch. It was going to be nervy enough having only Henry and an unknown partner out there but now as he's lost to injury it will be a brand new pairing in the centre.
Who will Nelsen go with? Will he opt to put one of the more veteran fullbacks into the middle? Personally I think that's both likely and wise - I'd expect to see Bradley Orr or Justin Morrow paired up with either Gale Agbossoumonde or Nick Hagglund. Given that Ashtone Morgan is also injured it is more likely to be Orr so that Morrow can hold down the left. That leaves (hopefully) Mark Bloom on the right where he's done a decent job thus far this season (but not so much in the midfield). The hope is that the experience of Orr and Morrow on either side of less seasoned defenders will help deal with the threats of Higuain and either Jairo Arrieta or Dominic Oduro.
The loss of the Caldwell and Henry partnership in the middle becomes more concerning when you think about defending set pieces and just clearing the line. Both have shown good instincts and have generally managed to get a head (or boot) on any dangerous balls sent in. Can Boss (or Hagglund) and whoever they're paired with read the game that well? Fingers crossed people.
The midfield is just as murky if not more so. Luckily Bradley wasn't injured in his dominating performance against Mexico on Wednesday night so that gives a bit of a spine to Toronto's centre. But who to pair with him? Jeremy Hall was invisible against RSL last week and Kyle Bekker, while possessing decent technical skills going forward, is not that defensive minded. However the team does have Jackson back so there is a small possibility that Nelsen will have Bradley hang back, use Jackson and Alvaro Rey on the wings and maybe have Issey mixed in there as well.
Again hoping to see Rey back on the right side so that he can link up with Bloom - there is a growing understanding between the two players and both looked less than impressive when not working together in the last game. Add in Jackson's physical presence on the left with a steady Morrow at the back this should allow Bradley to better patrol the middle of the pitch and snuff out the Crew attack.
Up top there's really no choice other than Gilberto and DeRo - this has the possibility to be a good pairing in Defoe's absence. DeRo has had a couple of sub-par performances and will be looking to leave his mark on one of TFC's matches. And while Gilberto hasn't been terrible, he certainly hasn't put in a commanding performance yet. Gilberto's speed and DeRo's savviness should serve them well as quick and skillful attacks will give Toronto a chance in this game.
Yes it's early in the season but in a season where TFC is swinging for the fences those two (and every player) have got to step up their performances; especially when this kind of opportunity strikes. There is every likelihood that this will be an ugly game; however it is a chance for those fighting to get a place in the starting XI to prove that they deserve that chance. Sometimes these are the games where teams surprise you. Do I think that they will? Probably not; but I'd love for them to prove me wrong. So come on you Reds!