Well folks it is that time again - time to pull the TFC kit back out of the closet and turn your footy focus back to MLS and support some local football. It's been just under three weeks since we last saw our Reds in action - except for the five of us that watched the Wilmington friendly - and well, I've missed them and am quite looking forward to this Friday's tilt against the New York Red Bulls. Toronto currently sits just above the Red Bulls in the standings (and in a playoff position to boot) and has FOUR games in hand. Four. Have to love the vagaries of MLS scheduling eh?
So Toronto has 2/3 of its season left and all of those aforementioned games in hand (five over some teams!), is this time for them to put up or shut up as what some view as Toronto's real season begins? Will they continue to win ugly and rack up the points or will it all fall apart? Three weeks off should mean a well rested, hopefully back to full health and eager to play bunch of players. Because there are players that have yet to make their mark this season, players that need to keep a hot streak going and at least one player that still may have a point to prove.
If this were any other season then coming back from three weeks off still missing one of your best players and starting on the road against a team that routinely spanks the Reds (and causes nightmares for TFC supporters), would be a cause for consternation among the faithful. But this isn't a year ago and this Toronto team seems to slowly be making a case for themselves as a team that you have to work to beat - even if it's one of the ugliest games you have to watch - can't argue with a four game unbeaten streak folks. And lets not forget beating New York last month at BMO and keeping Thierry Henry and (startlingly prolific scorer) Bradley Wright-Phillips off the score sheet.
Speaking of other pesky Red Bulls - one of the big questions for this game is whether or not Tim Cahill will be starting or even making the bench for this match. With Australia out and Cahill having not played for several days he should be well rested - but it all depends on when he flew back and whether or not Mike Petke feels he's ready to go. And of course there's always Jamison Olave to worry about, but after that? Bobby Convey? Will Ecks get some time? Nah, probably not - this is one of the few teams that TFC will play where we don't have to worry about the ex-Red effect coming back to bite Toronto in the ass.
And that brings us to who will start for Toronto? Even with (hopefully) the team back to full health how Nelsen selects his squad is still up for debate as he's actually got some choice and a jam-packed schedule for July (8 matches!) coming up so managing minutes will be key. Although that's what they pay him the big bucks for - but it is not as easy to pick this XI as you might think.
Three areas that are up in the air:
1. CB Pairing - Will it be Doneil Henry or Nick Hagglund starting next to Steven Caldwell? Hagglund has been excellent for the most part but really Henry put in several strong performances heading into the break all but erasing the memory of various gaffes made earlier in the season. He is still starting CB and Hagglund will be needed when the two games a week stretch in July starts.
2. Midfield Pairing: Who plays next to Collen Warner? And yes, it will be Warner that gets this start - this is why they traded for him and he's done well in the short amount of time we've seen him play. I think we'll see Jonathan Osorio (if he's healed) out there with Warner. But if Oso's still hurt? Kind of a toss-up but I'd guess Kyle Bekker is still the choice over Jeremy Hall. Yikes right? Have the US been eliminated yet?
3. Forwards: So who starts this game with Jermain Defoe? Does Gilberto still get the starting spot or has Luke Moore become the de facto starter with Ol Gil getting the second half sub role? Or do we maybe, just maybe get to see that 3 up front lineup that was originally announced for TFC's last home game - you know, before Gil got hurt in the warm-up. Because that could be all kinds of fun. However it will probably be Defoe and Moore and why not? Defoe still has plenty to prove and Moore works as a decent foil for him to play off of.
This is a game that Toronto should be able to get a point from - I'm not saying all three but a draw is not an unreasonable expectation. They've already shown that they can beat New York, that Mark Bloom can contain Henry and that they can use their speed to get behind the Red Bulls and score some goals. Most importantly though is that they need to get a positive result from this game if they want to start this part of the season off with a statement. They've promised the fanbase playoffs - well this is how you do it - you go to the scene where playoff hopes were destroyed and this time you keep them alive. Here's hoping that's the team we get to watch for the next four months. Welcome back TFC, we've missed you.