Rather than blather on about Vancouver (a fool's errand given it will again be an unfamiliar starting lineup) or review any particular moments from the first leg in minute detail – as Canadian soccer and MLS fans Vancouver should be rather familiar, in preparation for Wednesday night’s match there are three concerns that will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the series.
The Starting Lineups
Just who takes the pitch for each side will provide a lot of insight into how the match may play out.
Toronto went full-steam in the first leg with a largely first-choice eleven, while Vancouver fielded a youthful side, bringing in their bigger guns at the end, grabbing a crucial away goal.
Carl Robinson has a tough decision on his hands: does he stick with those who did well in the first leg, rewarding their performances? Or does he revert to a more experienced lineup in search of the win?
Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese are not available – they’re away in a Canada camp – so at least two positions open up. Russell Teibert will again captain the side (he was rested on the weekend), while Marco Carducci will remain in goal – he did quite well all told.
But does Robinson shift up his back-line, bringing in the experience? And what to do with those two wide midfield spots?
Truth be told, with the injury to Darren Mattocks and the departure of Kenny Miller, Vancouver is a little short handed up top. One of Erik Hurtado Kekuta Manneh, or Omar Salgado will feature – the others may well take up those wide positions.
The three spots that will reveal Robinson and Vancouver’s real intentions will be right-back, defensive midfield, and the spot behind the strikers.
Nigel Reo-Coker is not a right-back; he can put in a shift, but a clouded mind over his future with the club is never the best head space for a player to perform out of position.
Steven Beitashour, after a difficult transition, has looked very dangerous the last few weeks – just in time to join the Iranian National Team for the upcoming World Cup; probably not a coincidence.
If Beitashour gets the start over Reo-Coker, it would not only be a sign of intent from Vancouver, but may signal the death-knell of Nigel’s time with the Whitecaps.
The one player that TFC absolutely does not want to see in midfield is Matias Laba – fans in Toronto are well aware of the player’s quality, plus he may have a little resentment left over from being forced to move across the continent due to MLS’ bizarre roster rules (in a world sense).
The midfield three, for each side, will go a long way to determining who controls the flow of the match. Teibert, Laba, and Bryce Alderson is one thing, but Teibert, Laba, and Pedro Morales poses an entirely different threat.
The Chilean has struggled for consistency, hampered by a back injury, but the potential of having a real stopper in Laba, a real creator in Morales, and a dynamic link getting involved in both via Teibert is a mouth-watering possibility for Vancouver.
It is worth some consideration that Vancouver has a bye-week coming up, so there is less concern about preserving energy for a weekend match.
TFC, on the other hand, were off this weekend, but must return immediately to Toronto for a Saturday fixture against a tricky New York side.
How those considerations factor into their starting eleven remains to be seen – no need to hash out the possibilities, as one of WTR’s other previews has that angle covered.
The First Goal
With the score delicately poised at 2-1 – that late strike from Manneh (and the subsequent scuffle) really changed the complexion of the match, the first goal will be crucial.
It is pretty evident – factual, actually – that if Vancouver scores first, they put themselves into a winning position (away-goals and all that) on their home turf: Toronto does not want that.
If Toronto scores first, it erases that Vancouver away-goal advantage immediately – though of course a draw, scoreless or otherwise, will see TFC move on to the next round.
The question is, how do the teams go about getting that first goal?
Should they come out like a shot, in search of that opener to tip the balance in their direction? Or is it better to sit back and wait, absorb the pressure and make use of the gaps the opponent presents?
Toronto, with Jermain Defoe, are a serious concern on counterattacks or defensive mistakes (given the possibility of a young Vancouver back-line), but there is talk that Defoe will not be involved. The recently-acquired Luke Moore has not looked great at Chivas USA, but could find new life in a more familiar setting under Ryan Nelsen.
The first goal will be crucial.
What Happens After
But what happens afterwards is of equal importance.
If Toronto has to open up in search of a goal, Vancouver has the devastating speed that will cause all sorts of problems with TFC having to push the match forward.
Should Toronto take the ascendancy, Vancouver will have to open up, making gaps for Toronto to exploit.
That is in part why the first goal is so crucial; it allows either team to control their destiny, and thus the outcome of the match.
There is always the possibility that neither side seeks to take the immediate advantage, waiting for the opponent to make the first move, though that's not a game that Vancouver can play for too long, they literally need a goal, Toronto can afford to wait all game if allowed to.
Added to those complications is the need to manage the game, and hence the substitutes, with the possibility of added time.
A starting lineup that is arranged for one potential, may be insufficient for what comes after, and the need to burn subs prematurely could haunt come the end, when tired legs on the turf could play a factor.
Regardless of who takes the field, who scores first, and how the game plays out, the second leg is poised to be a very intriguing contest. The mind-game of lineups, the momentum of scoring first, and the implications of that late goal will all be factors.
It may be a mini, five-team tournament, but it is a heck of a lot of fun, no?
Tune in tonight, to see who moves on to the next round to face Edmonton (snicker).