Bye week spent, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Sunday with another difficult road match ahead – the third of seven, for those counting.
Opening weekend in Vancouver ended better than most could have desired, a dour first passage giving way to a professional 3-1 win and hints of promise for the season ahead. Match Two in Columbus was nearly the complete opposite, a disjointed performance cut short by a red card and a two-goal collapse in quick succession, resulting in a 2-0 loss to heated foes.
As for what Match Three will bring, one must wait and see, but rest assured, it will be yet another stern test, further complicated by suspension, injury, and international duty.
TFC will be without two of their highest profile assets, in Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore; thankfully Canada was kind, opting only to call in Quillan Roberts and Chris Mannella from TFC II. Justin Morrow, he of that red card in Columbus, had the appeal on his behalf denied, and will thus not be available, while the back-line may be further hampered as Steven Caldwell, Damien Perquis, and Mark Bloom are listed with knocks.
However, Sebastian Giovinco was not called into the Italian squad for this international break, sparing any further absences.
With those realities stacked against them, Toronto must travel to an inhospitable realm, to take on one of the shining lights of the league; fortune has counterbalanced to some extent, as the hosts have their own injury and international concerns to consider.
These matches during FIFA windows always throw up a smokescreen of confusion, as such, and as always, a closer look at this week's opponent, Real Salt Lake, is in order.
Salt Lake has been undergoing some quiet revolutions over the past few seasons, but for very different reasons than Toronto FC.
Success brings with it it's own challenges, especially in a salary-capped league. As soon as they had reached the pinnacle of the league with that MLS Cup win in 2009, a slow trickle of forced changes began.
Robbie Findley, now with TFC, left for Europe, as did Yura Movsisyan; Robbie Russell, Andy Williams, and Clint Mathis retired, Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, and Fabian Espindola were traded to Portland and New York, respectively, but the seismic change came at the end of 2013 when Jason Kreis opted to leave the club with which he ended his playing career and began his managerial career for the Big City lights of New York and the deep pockets of City Football Group and Yankee Global Enterprises, both huge names in the World of professional sports.
Jeff Cassar did astonishingly well in his first year at the helm, guiding the side to 56 points last season, good enough for third place in the West. They would fall at the first hurdle, the Western Conference Semifinals, losing out to eventual champions, the LA Galaxy, holding out for a score-less draw in the home leg, only to collapse embarrassingly away, losing 5-0.
Disappointing yes, but to see out a coaching transition of such an instrumental figure while still succeeding on the field is worthy of celebration.
The aftershocks of the Kreis departure would not end there. GM Garth Lagerway, another key figure in their success, would bow out, making his way to Seattle in the off-season. Shortly after that further ripples followed, as Kreis himself would scavenge his former nest, selecting two of his past charges – Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert – in the expansion draft, and acquiring a third, Sebastian Velasquez, via trade.
In addition to those departures, long-time servant Nat Borchers was traded to Portland, while Findley, who had only recently returned from England, was nabbed by Toronto in the Re-Entry Draft.
Further evidence of the turnover can be seen in young centre-back Carlos Salcedo, who was transferred to Guadalajara having just begun to dip his toes into MLS.
In order to fill some of those vacancies, Salt Lake set about rebuilding, in their own way of course, one very different from TFC's bottomless-pocket approach.
The only truly high-profile addition was Olave, a member of that cup winning side, who would return from New York in a trade. Aside from the experienced defender, Salt Lake reached into their academy structure for a couple of homegrown signings – Sebastian Saucedo, Phanuel Kavita, and Adolfo Ovalle – signed a draft pick, Boyd Okwuonu, and picked up several free transfers: midfielder Wellington Paeckart, more commonly known as Pecka, a Brazilian who came to North American attention with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of NASL, full-back Demar Phillips, and Guatemalan defender Elias Vasquez. Phillips is the only, besides Olave, to feature thus far.
Needless to say, there are plenty of unknowns when assessing the quality of their depth so early in the season.
Further complicating such projections, Salt Lake will be without five players due to international duty. Nick Rimando, Alvaro Saborio, Luis Gil, Vasquez, and Okwuonu, were all selected for their respective sides.
As such, their projected lineup is as follows: Jeff Attinella in goal; from right to left – Tony Beltran, Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler, and Abdoulie Mansally across the back-line; Kyle Beckerman sitting deep in the midfield with Luke Mulholland and Javier Morales further afield; Sebastian Jaime, Devon Sandoval, and Olmes Garcia will span the attack.
There are several possible alterations at Cassar's disposal.
Attinella has largely deputized for Rimando when he is away, but Lalo Fernandez, a 20-year Mexican national is an option, unlikely as that may be.
In the back, Phillips and Mansally have split the two matches at left-back. Phillips is currently listed as out, but could be available – and looked lively in his outing against Philadelphia. Former TFC draft pick Aaron Maund re-signed with the club in the off-season and could be a candidate for time, if needed.
Gil's absence means a new face must be drafted in to that midfield three – Mulholland has entered from the bench, and is the most likely replacement; injuries to John Stertzer and Pecka limit the options, but Jordan Allen, a 19-year old homegrown player, signed after the 2013 season, saw some time in the opener and could feature, if not as a starter, then from the bench.
Up top, that Saborio is unavailable leaves Cassar with a gaping hole in his attack. Sandoval is the obvious replacement to fill that central target role, but either Jaime or Garcia could move to the middle, opening up a wide spot for Mulholland or Allen.
Salt Lake is nearly as short-handed and battered as Toronto.
Former Red Joao Plata suffered a fractured metatarsal at the start of preseason and will not be available.
After a solid preseason, for what it is worth, where they lost only their first match – against New England back at the end of January - Salt Lake, like TFC, have played two league matches before sitting out last weekend with an early bye week.
They opened the season with a scoreless draw in Portland, where Rimando was the hero again - courtesy a little help for a defender or two who helped clear danger off the line; it was the third-straight 0-0 result in Portland between the two clubs who have built up a nice rivalry since the Timbers joined the league.
Round Two saw them play out a ridiculous 3-3 draw in their home opener against the Philadelphia Union; a truly bizarre six-goal match.
The first was a deflected Morales free-kick that found its way to the back of the Union net. The second came from a Cristian Maidana cross that Beckerman redirected towards his own goal, forcing Rimando into a hurried save, only to put the rebound on the head of Fernando Aristeguieta for a simple nod in. The third would put Philly ahead into half-time, a Maidana throw-in touched weakly back by Schuler, upon which Aristeguieta pounced on to beat Rimando once more.
Salt Lake would level in the second half off a peculiar series of bounces on the end of a free-kick, Morales whipping a ball to the back-post where it struck off Garcia's knee, then hit the head of a falling Olave, before nestling into the top corner. Three minutes later yet another strange one, as Olave would turn from hero to goat, stretching to cut out a low Maidana ball, only to handcuff Rimando as the redirection found the open side of goal.
To cap off the night, a controversial penalty decision would hand the home side the draw, Mulholland going to ground when confronted by an arm across his chest in the box from Mo Edu, much to the chagrin of the Union. Mulholland himself was pretty surprised by it when interviewed post-match.
With so few matches played and so many forced changes for both sides, it is difficult to say just how Sunday's nationally-broadcast (in the US) match will play out.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses and highlighting some points of interest will be posted in a timely manner.