Fresh off a resounding win on opening day in Vancouver, Toronto FC continues their series of road matches with a difficult contest on Saturday against Trillium Cup rivals, the Columbus Crew SC.
While few would have predicted a 1-3 win against the Whitecaps, it should be remembered that before the dominant second half there was a shaky first, where TFC's lack of speed at the back and a measure of disorganization could have proven very costly, had Vancouver taken their chances. There was as much to like about the second half as their was to be concerned about in the first – a work in progress indeed.
Saturday brings with it a familiar challenge, against an opponent who will be eager to register their first point of the nascent season. Columbus, like Vancouver, will feel hard done by after a strong opening day performance, where they dominated large stretches of the match, only to run into a hot goalkeeper, Houston's Tyler Deric, who denied their every attempt.
Toronto weathered opening day jitters and found their quality in the second half, but should they start against a fit and ready Columbus side in a similar fashion, fortune may not smile upon Greg Vanney's charges once more. A good start is not key to a result, but a bad one can end a match before it has even begun, no matter what depth of quality a team possesses.
Prior to the Vancouver match it was cautioned that Toronto, especially their back-line, would be tested by the blistering pace of the opponent's attack; that same warning carries into the weekend, as Columbus are not lacking in the speed department themselves.
But Columbus poses other questions as well.
A closer look at this round's opposition, the Columbus Crew SC, is in order.
Having taken the reins of the club after the close of the 2013 season, Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS defender himself, has begun his second season as the sporting director and head coach of the Crew.
With his system in place and a squad that impressed, rising up to third place in the Eastern Conference only to crash out of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, falling to New England 7-3 on aggregate, Berhalter made limited changes in the off-season. There have been ten additions, strengthening a few positions, rounding out the roster with some draft picks and yet another homegrown signing, while eleven players exited through the out door.
There were some significant losses amongst them. Jairo Arrieta and Eric Gehrig were both taken in the Expansion Draft by Orlando City, who promptly traded each of them – Arrieta to DC and Gehrig to Chicago. Josh Williams was sent to New York City and Bernardo Anor to Kansas City, both for allocation money. A host of squad players, including Agustin Viana and Daniel Paladini saw their options declined, while Ben Sweat, a draft pick from 2014, was waived, landing on his feet in Tampa Bay.
For their replacements, Berhalter used his varied contacts around the world to source talent. Harkening back to his time in Sweden with Hammarby Fotboll, Berhalter brought over a pair of midfielders in Kristin Steindorsson and Mohammed Saeid, an Icelander and a Swede, respectively. Links to Argentina – think Federico Higuain and Guillermo Barros Schelotto - brought Hernan Grana, a right-back from CA All Boys.
Within the league, the Crew were able to scoop up Chris Klute from Colorado in a draft-day deal that saw the sides swap first-round picks and some allocation money. A trio of picks from that same draft – defenders Sergio Campbell and Kalen Ryden, and Israeli forward, Sagi Lev-Ari – were signed. And Ben Swanson, a highly-touted seventeen-year old midfielder was added from the academy, having been with the organization since the age of eight – which is impressive and rather awesome.
They also nabbed the intriguing Cedrick Mabwati, a Congolese winger who turned heads at the recent Africa Cup of Nations, but he will see out the European season on loan at CA Osasuna, so will not be available until the summer.
In truth, their most crucial addition joined the club last year, when it was determined in August that Kei Kamara would be returning to MLS after a brief English adventure – with Norwich City and Middlesbrough – landing in Columbus, the team that originally drafted him back in 2006, through the allocation process.
Columbus was also allocated talented French-born American youth international Romain Gall in a weighted lottery in the waning months of the 2014 season.
And Emanuel Pogatetz a rough and ready Austrian international centre-back was brought in to shore up the centre of defense after Giancarlo Gonzalez was transferred to Italian side Palermo midseason; though he saw few minutes in whole.
Toronto can expect to encounter a starting eleven largely unchanged from last season's.
There is however at least one major question mark surrounding what Saturday's lineup will be, as Justin Meram, who was suspended for the opening match due to a red card in last season's playoffs, will be available, giving Berhalter one more decision to make.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Steve Clark in goal; from right to left – Hernan Grana, Michael Parkhurst, Emmanuel Pogatetz, and Waylon Francis across the back-line; Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp will sit deep in the midfield with Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, and Justin Meram across the midfield; Kei Kamara will top the formation.
There is little reason to suspect Berhalter would alter his eleven from the first match, aside from inserting Meram, given the strong outing in Houston. After a banner year, Meram is expected to play a key role in 2015, buoyed with that confidence and with that of making his international debut for Iraq and taking part in the recent Asian Cup.
That said, there are plenty of options at his fingertips.
Along the back-line, Tyson Wahl, Chris Klute, and Chad Barson are the most likely candidates to take up positions, if needed. In midfield, Steindorsson could reprise his left-sided role – it is harsh to lose one's spot after a good outing anyways, while the likes of Ben Speas, Hector Jimenez, Kevan George, and Muhammad Saeid could be drafted in – Gall is out with a knee injury. Up top, neither Aaron Schoenfeld, nor Adam Bedell are likely to displace Kamara.
Speas, Jimenez, and Schoenfeld saw minutes from the bench in Houston.
Having ended last season with five wins in their last six matches and just one loss in their final eight, before crashing out to eventual MLS Cup finalists, Columbus hoped to carry that good form into the new year.
That wish was dashed as they ran into a hot keeper in Deric, who faced some eighteen shots, making six saves on the night. Giles Barnes would pounce on one of the few Dynamo chances to win Owen Coyle's debut MLS match, smashing a right-footed blast past a helpless Clark in the 66th minute after Kofi Sarkodie worked through Francis on the attacking right to pick out the English forward with a low ball for a high, near-post run.
The 1-0 loss was a disappointing start having perhaps done enough to at least take a point from the match, if not more.
Their build into the season began in mid-February with a pair of matches in Austin at the ATX Pro Challenge. They would lose their first 3-1 to FC Dallas, Blas Perez scoring first and Ryan Hollingshead adding two more before Steindorsson found some consolation in the last half-hour.
Barson would score the winner in the second, a 1-0 victory of the Austin Aztex two days later.
The next stage of preseason saw the Crew travel to Bradenton, Florida for the IMG Sunshine Classic, opening the tournament with a 7-0 demolition of London United with Kamara and Grana each nabbing braces, while Finlay, Klute, and Lev-Ari added singles.
They would win their second match as well, by a more modest scoreline, beating the Costa Rica U-23 side 2-0 with Kamara and Higuain registering the goals. TFC would beat that same Costa Rican side 2-1 in the coming days.
Their third match in Florida saw them face MLS competition again, drawing 1-1 against the Philadelphia Union – Meram scoring for the Crew after Fernando Arristeguieta put the Union ahead – only to lose 5-3 in the subsequent shootout, Meram seeing his attempt saved by Rais M'Bolhi.
Preseason would conclude with a 4-1 win over Oklahoma City Energy FC, who Toronto also faced (losing 1-0), with Steindorsson, Finlay, Higuain, and Kamara all adding to their tallies.
Columbus are considered by many to be one of the stronger sides in the reconfigured Eastern Conference and are expected to battle with DC, New England, and perhaps even Toronto, for those top four spots, so Saturday's meeting will already be of interest. Add to that the building rivalry that came into the series after years of Crew domination when Toronto swept last season's results with a trio of wins to take just their second Trillium Cup in the seven years the trophy has been on offer.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weakness, and highlighting some points of interest will be posted soon - it can now be found here.