Fresh off a rousing come-from-behind win over Houston on Saturday, Toronto returns to the pitch for the final match of their three-game home-stand, for a meeting with Canadian rivals Vancouver.
So far through this run of ten matches in 38 days the results have been underwhelming: draws away to New York and Chicago were solid results, given the circumstances, but the loss to DC at home was a body blow.
The win over Houston smoothed some of that hurt, but for the club to maintain their position – currently sitting in third in the East with three games in hand on the two clubs ahead (Kansas City by five points and DC by seven), a better ratio than five-out-of-twelve points must be achieved.
The next three weeks, with matches against KC and away to DC, will go a long way to determining whether Toronto can truly challenge for the top places in the conference or be pulled back into the congested playoff race.
The next hurdle on the long march to the playoffs will be a difficult match against Vancouver. It is an encounter with the added significance of factoring into which Canadian side will feature in the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League, as the change in schedule of the Voyageurs Cup means that that edition’s participant will be determined by standings in MLS this year.
Vancouver currently has a one point lead on TFC, on 25 points after seventeen matches, but TFC has two games in hand; while there are plenty of matches to go, a moral victory in this match will provide a good boost to the winner.
The two met twice back in May, as they dueled over the right to feature in the finale of the Voyageurs Cup: Toronto winning 2-1 at home and going through 3-5 on penalty kicks in Vancouver after losing 2-1; they would fall to Montreal in the final.
As such Carl Robinson’s Vancouver will be a familiar foe, but still, a closer look at this week’s enemy, the Vancouver Whitecaps, is in order.
Prior to Robinson’s hiring in December, Vancouver were already in the process of rebuilding a side that failed to make the playoffs by three points.
Heading out the door were mainstays of the Martin Rennie days, the likes of Lee Young-Pyo (retirement), Daigo Kobayashi, Jun Marques Davidson, Tommy Heinemann, Brad Rusin, and Joe Cannon (to name but a few who saw their options declined), as well as Matt Watson (traded to Chicago) and Brad Knighton (traded to New England); then there was the whole Camilo forced-transfer saga (he left to Queretaro in Mexico).
Joining them in exiting the club at the start of May was Kenny Miller, when the two mutually agreed to terminate the remaining two months on his contract, freeing him to find a new club for the upcoming European season and allowing Vancouver to allocate those salary funds elsewhere.
Their replacements, acquired through the all the various means available to MLS clubs, were SuperDraft picks Christian Dean and Andre Lewis, Re-Entry Draft selection Mehdi Ballouchy, transfers Pedro Morales and Nicolos Mezquida, trades Matias Laba (from Toronto) and Steven Beitashour (from San Jose), homegrown signing Marco Carducci and loanee Sebastian Fernandez.
Following such a thorough rebuild and under the tutelage of a first year coach, pundits could be forgiven for underestimating this season’s Vancouver Whitecaps. While it was obvious that they were stocked with ample young talent, what these new additions would contribute was a great unknown.
Seventeen matches into the season, they have proved themselves more than capable in this league.
Given that Vancouver is in the midst of a six-matches in 26 days run throughout the month of July – poor Whitecaps – it is difficult to be certain just who will get the nod for Wednesday’s match.
Their projected lineup is as follows: David Ousted in goal; from right to left – Steven Beitashour, Carlyle Mitchell, Johnny Leveron, and Christian Dean across the back-line; Matias Laba and Russell Teibert sitting in the midfield, with Nicolos Mezquida, Pedro Morales, and Kekuta Manneh further ahead and Erik Hurtado as the lone striker.
Regular starter Jordan Harvey is suspended, having seen a red card for his rash tackle on Oswaldo Minda on Saturday, opening up the left-back position. Both Dean and Sam Adekugbe, who is fit again after a long injury lay-off, are candidates for the spot: Dean looks the more likely to feature – seeing as he has minutes in their last two matches, whereas Adekugbe has yet to feature this year.
One can never rule out the Canadian factor for Adekugbe, but this match comes too soon for him to factor.
Andy O’Brien is available again, back in training after missing time with a right hip injury – whether Robinson will risk his fitness in this match, rather than stick with the young duo of Mitchell and Leveron, who have done well enough the last three matches, is unclear.
Teibert did not see a minute on the weekend, so he will be fresh and ready to take on the club with whom he began his MLS journey. Gershon Koffie has looked very good in the midfield and could take Laba’s spot, but Robinson, as a former player himself, will enjoy the symmetry of a player featuring against his former side.
Sebastian Fernandez has seen much more time than Mezquida on the right-side of the midfield attacking three, but with a more important fixture against Salt Lake on Saturday, Robinson may look to rest some of his preferred starters; as much as this match against domestic foes is of value, given the unbalanced nature of the league and playoff structure, points against conference rivals are far more crucial.
In that spirit it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Morales sits, perhaps going with three central mids in Laba, Koffie, and Teibert instead, but such speculation is too much of a stretch to commit to at this moment – got to play the odds when making projections.
Manneh has been a mainstay in the lineup and exited their weekend match after 70 minutes, perhaps indicative of him getting a slight rest in preparation for a busy week. Darren Mattocks has seen limited minutes and is a candidate to take either Manneh’s spot or Hurtado’s in this busy stretch.
Nigel Reo-Coker recently had a child – a baby girl, if one needs to know that sort of thing – he has featured from the bench in the last two matches and could return to the starting lineup at either right-back, if Beitashour needs a rest after so much travel of late (going to Brazil with the Iranian side) or as one of the central midfield three, providing a little steel and combativeness there.
Though they currently sit in fifth place in the West, trailing the three teams directly ahead of them by a point for each place, a point ahead of sixth-placed LA and two ahead of Chivas, Vancouver enter Wednesday’s match in mediocre form.
They went into the World Cup break riding a seven-match unbeaten run, but the pause disrupted that form and since the league resumed they have won just once in four matches, losing two of their last three.
Their season began well, going unbeaten through their first four matches (wins at home over New York, 4-1 and Houston, 2-1 and draws away to Chivas, 1-1 and New England, 0-0) before losing a pair of matches to Western opponents (home to Colorado, 1-2 and away to Los Angeles, 1-0).
They would rebound the following week in a rematch against the Galaxy, playing to a 2-2 draw at home – it was the result that began their eight-match unbeaten run. Another 2-2 draw, in Salt Lake, would follow, before wins over San Jose (3-2) and away to Columbus (0-1) were interspersed with their Voyageurs Cup series against TFC.
The Whitecaps would close out the first phase of their season with a trio of high-scoring contests – drawing 2-2 against Seattle, winning 3-4 in Portland, and finishing off with 3-3 draw in Philadelphia.
A dour, scoreless affair against Montreal heralded the resumption of MLS on the Wednesday, two days before the rest of the league returned that weekend, where Vancouver would lose once more to Colorado, 2-0 away from home on goals from Dillon Powers and Vicente Sanchez, snapping the unbeaten run at eight.
The following week brought with it a win, 1-0 over Seattle in the latest installment of their Cascadia Cup campaign, through another long-range bomb from Fernandez.
Most recently, this past weekend, they fell 1-3 to a resurgent Chivas, after the two exchanged headers from corner kicks before Harvey’s red card allowed space for Cubo Torres and Leandro Barrera to pile on goals in the last ten minutes of action.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses will be posted shortly