It has been hard to maintain a positive spin on Toronto FC’s summer.
Given the makeup of their schedule, always playing catch-up, with those pesky games in hand seen as potential points, any slips could be overlooked, as long as they maintained their position and kept ahead of the chasing pack.
But one stat lays bare just how sneakily bad it has been: Toronto has won just three of their last twelve matches, while collecting twelve of 36 available points.
That is not good.
A strong run of form from Columbus has seen them climb level on 33 points, tied for third in the East; three points separate third from seventh in a tightly-packed conference.
TFC still has a game or two in hand on their opponents, but that imaginary cushion becomes less relevant with every dropped result.
Eleven matches remain in the 2014 season for Toronto, plenty of points on the table, but results must be better and recurring injuries to an already-stretched defensive core could not have come at a worse time.
Those remaining matches can be broken down into three sections: the first, a series of four matches against Eastern opposition – the home and away series with Philadelphia and a trip to Chicago to follow Saturday’s home match against New England; followed by a trio of games against Western opponents – home to Chivas and Portland before an away trip to Los Angeles; and finally, a run of four matches back amongst the East to close out the stretch.
Eleven games to determine just how big this bloody deal was in the end. It has not been pretty, but there are no points for pretty, and MLS history teaches that it is the getting there that counts; anything can happen in the playoffs.
Toronto must grit their teeth, forget about the sordid past, and get the job done, beginning with a win Saturday against New England.
It has been some time since the two first met this season – New England winning 1-2 at BMO Field at the start of May. The summer was not kind to them either, a run of eight-straight losses sullying their strong spring.
They too will be eager to take the points, kick starting their sprint to the finish, and buoyed by a high-profile acquisition now in tow.
Much of what was written before still holds – Parts One and Two, many of the faces are familiar, but still, a closer look at this weekend’s enemy, the New England Revolution, is in order…
New England enter Saturday’s in the midst of turning around their season, responding to that losing streak by picking up results in three of their last four matches.
Their win over Toronto back in May came at a very different time, heralding a second-straight win and fourth unbeaten for the Revs. Three further wins would follow – a 5-0 win over Seattle, 3-5 in Philadelphia, and 2-1 against DC, stretching those streaks to five and seven, respectively, before the wheels came off in Montreal, falling 2-0 to the lowly Impact.
Another loss would see New England into the World Cup break, falling 0-2 against New York. During the break they would find some positives, moving through their first two challenges in the US Open Cup – 2-3 in Richmond and 2-1 against Rochester – before losing three days later in their return to league play, falling 1-3 against Philadelphia.
In the midst of a hectic schedule – they would play ten matches in 38 days – a 2-1 loss away to Salt Lake followed quickly afterwards, then another meeting against the Union, this time in the Open Cup, saw them drop another, falling 2-0 to exit the cup.
Losses against Chicago (0-1), in Los Angeles (5-1), and in Dallas (2-0) came in quick succession, extending the losing streak to seven; a much-needed week to prepare could not prevent the eighth-straight defeat, falling 1-2 to Columbus – Federico Higuain put the Crew in front shortly before half-time, but AJ Soares drew the hosts level in the 50th, only for a defensive breakdown in the 84th minute (and a lovely ball from Justin Meram) that allowed Ethan Finlay to streak in and finish for the winner.
Once more on short rest, they faced down the potential of setting a new club record for consecutive losses, when they hosted Colorado in their final game of July. But fortune – and Lee Nguyen – smiled upon them, seeing out a commanding performance with a 3-0 win to snap the downward spiral, Nguyen factoring in each of the goals, scoring a brace and setting up Kelyn Rowe’s capper.
It was a result that could not be savoured, as the schedule had them face off against New York three days later, falling 2-1 at Red Bull Arena, despite playing the second half up a man. Charlie Davies had given the Revolution the lead in the first half before Matt Miazga was dismissed, but a pair of second-half goals from Dax McCarty and Bradley Wright-Phillips doomed the result.
Fourteen days would pass before New England again took to the pitch – a much-needed chance to regroup and refocus; one that has served them relatively well thus far.
Using a pair of home matches against Western opposition to get back on track, unencumbered by in-conference six-pointer concerns – something TFC may want to keep in mind – the Revs would draw 1-1 against Portland. It was a match they perhaps should have won, having taken the lead inside the half-hour - again through Davies, only to concede a sloppy goal after the hour, allowing Timbers centre-back, Liam Ridgewell, to walk through the team and scored his first MLS goal.
A week on it was Chivas who traveled to Foxborough to face New England, with the home side riding a wonderful Nguyen finish to the 1-0 victory.
New England hope the modest unbeaten run of two matches will propel them into their final ten matches of the season, all against Eastern opponents. After Saturday, they return home for a run of three-straight. The East will be a dogfight to the end.
May 3 Toronto 1: New England 2
Toronto took an early lead after six minutes when Gilberto found Jackson wide on the right and his long-range effort deflected off AJ Soares to beat Bobby Shuttleworth at the near-post.
The Revs would respond in the 24th minute, when Lee Nguyen intercepted a weak Doneil Henry pass to feed in Patrick Mullins, who whisked an emphatic left-footed strike into the top left-corner of the goal, past Julio Cesar, for his first MLS goal – one to remember for sure.
The two would exchange half-chances – Shutleworth racing out to deny Jackson and Cesar parrying a Teal Bunbury strike – before a penalty awarded in the 82nd minute, Henry with the outstretched arm to block a Mullins shot, allowed Nguyen to nab the winner from the spot, right-footing high to Cesar’s left.
Toronto would press for an equalizer in the rain, Shuttleworth coming up big to deny a fierce Gilberto header from a Mark Bloom cross, before Jermain Defoe whisked a left-footer wide of the post on a decent look in the waning minutes.
Long-term injuries to Andy Dorman and Chris Tierney will ensure that Jay Heaps fields a changed eleven from that May meeting, but given all the recent reinforcements, it is difficult to say exactly who will be involved.
Dorman’s injury in particular has been a problem, as he fulfilled the vital role of shielding the back-four and playing the pass out of the back that allowed New England’s attacking five to concentrate on moving forward.
Scott Caldwell has done an admirable job in Dorman’s absence, but with the high-profile acquisition of US International Jermaine Jones announced on Sunday after protracted negotiations with the league and a blind draw - he trained with the club for the first time on Tuesday - could he be in line for his debut?
A further twist to that midfield spot is that Shalrie Joseph, who re-signed for the club with which he made his name in MLS back in April, is finally fit and could be in line to make his first appearance.
As well as signing Jones, New England has been busy, adding a series of forwards to their attacking stable, acquiring Tony Taylor in a lottery, signing Dutch striker Geoffrey Castrillon, and welcoming Andre Akpan from New York, with Sair Sene heading in the opposite direction.
Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Bobby Shuttleworth in goal; from right to left – Andrew Farrell, AJ Soares, Jose Goncalves, and Darius Barnes across the back; Jermaine Jones holding, with Teal Bunbury, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, and Diego Fagundez across the midfield; Charlie Davies up top as the lone striker.
It is unlikely that any of the newly-arrived strikers will displace Davies, who has scored twice in their last three matches, but expect to see Taylor as a substitute, injecting pace into the right-side of the attack from the bench. Patrick Mullins is an option, but Heaps will likely stick with the in-form Davies.
Daigo Kobayashi is the odd man out in the projected lineup. His partnership with Nguyen in the middle is solid, as has on occasion displaced either Bunbury or Rowe from the starting lineup, with Rowe moving out to Bunbury’s right side.
Rookie midfielder Steve Neumann has looked good in his limited minutes, but is unlikely to displace a starter.
Fielding Jones immediately is a bit of a gamble – he is not fully match-fit, but with valuable points against an Eastern opponent on the line, the emotional boost he will provide is worth the risk; either Joseph or Caldwell would likely see second-half minutes to relieve the debutant designated player, if he does indeed see the pitch.
Without the most recent injury data at time of posting, it is tough to say whether Barnes will continue at left-back, Kevin Alston has missed some time with a knock, but could be available again. He provides a bit more attacking intent than Barnes and New England will no doubt come out swinging against a battered Toronto defense.
With Heaps committed to that 4-1-4-1 formation, New England’s attacking five are as dangerous a group as any in the league. Nguyen, Rowe, and Kobayashi can slice through the middle with movement or passes, while the wide forwards – Fagundez and Bunbury - function as inverted wingers, looking to cut in-field whenever possible.
It is that mixture of vertical and horizontal movement that unbalances defenses, creating gaps for willing runners to exploit. Consider Nguyen’s winner from the weekend against Chivas, where New England patiently maintained possession, moving the ball from side to side, waiting for the chance to present itself.
Rowe and Kobayashi looked to combine with a neat back-heeled one-two, only for a weak clearance to fall to Nguyen, who beat Dan Kennedy with a curling right-footer from the top of the arc:
Toronto will have to be very wary of that lateral movement across the area and their wide midfielders will have to do a much better job of tracking back to reinforce on the flanks, while Michael Bradley and Collen Warner cannot be caught forward like Oswaldo Minda and Nathan Sturgis were on that play.
New England’s wide attackers will initiate a lot of attacks for the Revolution, whether driving on goal themselves, or playing in passes for their teammates, they must be watched carefully.
Take their goal against Portland, Fagundez is allowed space to tear towards goal before laying a perfect through-ball for the curled run of Davies, who finishes well:
When not making those slicing runs himself, Davies provides a neat outlet for combination play, contributing tidy hold-up play to find the slicing runs of his teammates – see Nguyen’s first goal against Colorado for an example. Toronto must be focused at all times and commit to tracking runners, lest they be similarly carved open
New England are deadly in tight spaces, but with open field ahead and their ability to pass and move, they are simply unplayable, as Rowe’s goal against Colorado attests:
And then, should the opponent be reduced to fouling them, the Revolution are equally dangerous from set-pieces – whether big centre-backs getting on the end of a free-kick, as Soares did against Philadelphia, or Nguyen putting them in himself, as he did superbly against Colorado:
Toronto must limit those chances in order to find success on Saturday, no doubt a difficult task for an injury-riddled back-line.
That all seems rather terrifying in isolation, but fortunately, New England are very susceptible at the back, the majority of their goals against coming from poor defending.
Goncalves, after his early season discontent, has not been the imposing force he was last season – Sebastien Le Toux’s opener for Philadelphia is just one example of the inattention to the details that has proved costly.
Similarly, in that same match, Danny Cruz was allowed to stroll towards goal, before finishing with a shot from outside the area in the absence of any ball-pressure whatsoever:
Cruz’s goal came with New England pressing forward in search of an equalizer – something they have been forced to do often, conceding first in twelve matches – in fact, the first goal is often decisive in New England games, winning eight of ten when they score it and losing eleven of thirteen when they do not.
That susceptibility to counterattacks and the need to push to get back into matches, has repeatedly bitten New England; desperation combined with a slow back-line is definitely a weak point, as Tesho Akindele can attest, blowing past Farrell to seal Dallas’ win:
Game-winners from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Ethan Finlay in recent weeks have all exposed that defensive frailty, as did Liam Ridgewell’s run for Portland:
No centre-back should be able to saunter through a team like that to equalize – Toronto has the speed to threaten in the wide positions, but they must get that ball forward quickly to give Defoe something to work with and the likes of Bradley and Jonathan Osorio should look to find chances to get forward, asking questions of the defense. It would be nice to see Doneil Henry with one of those, but one should not hold their breath on that one.
One final point, while Shuttleworth is an excellent keeper – he will make a game-saving stop once or twice a match – he is prone to the occasional gaff, whether misreading a cross, as he did against New York, or giving up a juicy rebound as he did against Montreal.
Toronto should test him from range, get crosses into the box, and follow them up – good things can happen.
This is the second meeting between the sides this season; their third comes on the final weekend of the season, when New England will host Toronto at Gillette Stadium on October 25.
The two have met seventeen times in MLS play, Toronto winning four, New England, six, and seven ending drawn. Their win in the last meeting was their first ever at Toronto, ending a run of three-straight draws between the sides at BMO Field.
New England’s record in Toronto currently stands at one win, two losses, and five draws; they are unbeaten in their last four visits, TFC’s last win having come back in 2010, 1-0 on a Chad Barrett goal.
The Far Post Podcast is well worth a listen; fans of comedy may want to check out Kevin Alston’s Improv debut.