Season IX – 2015; Match 1
Strike averted, Toronto FC, and the rest of the league, will indeed begin the 2015 season on Saturday.
The journey of 34 matches begins with a single step. For TFC the playoff chase kicks off with a trying run of eight-straight away matches, the first of which requires a long-flight across the continent to face Canadian opponents, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Though in opposite conferences, and thus rarely tangling in the league, the two sides are well-acquainted, regularly meeting in the Voyageurs Cup, including last year's edition.
They met once in the league last year, but that was some eight months ago, time for a closer look at the weekend's enemy: the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In his second season at the helm of the club, former Toronto FC midfielder, Carl Robinson has maintained a remarkable consistency in his squad – with 22 returning players from last season's roster - a rarity in MLS, where heavy turnover is the norm.
That said, there are some notable absences from last year, especially at the back.
Captain Jay DeMerit was forced to retire due to injury midway through 2014, while veteran Andy O'Brian, a near-permanent fixture in the lineup, Honduran Johnny Leveron, and Trinidadian Carlyle Mitchell will not be returning. In their place Pa Modou Kah, signed after his contract option was declined by Portland, and Uruguayan Diego Rodriguez have been brought in to bolster the centre-back stable.
Their headline acquisition of the off-season was another Uruguayan, Octavio Rivero, a 23 year-old striker, signed as a young designated played from the delightfully named Chilean club O'Higgins FC, where he tallied ten goals in sixteen matches in 2014.
Aside from Rivero, Rodriguez, and Kah, Robinson's Whitecaps also inked a pair of homegrown contracts, bringing Canadians Marco Bustos and Ben McKendry into the first team, and most recently added teenage Honduran midfielder Deybi Flores on loan from CD Montagua – Amado Guevara's old club, leaving one to wonder if Robinson's former teammate had anything to do with arranging the loan.
Joining O'Brien, Leveron, and Mitchell on the outs were former first-overall draft pick Omar Salgado - who found his way to UANL Tigres in Mexico via NYC FC after struggling to break into MLS, on loan Uruguayan midfielder Sebastian Fernandez - who had his option declined, and Mehdi Ballouchy - who was selected by NYC in the Expansion Draft.
With a plethora of options, especially in midfield and attack, pinpointing Vancouver's starting eleven for Saturday, is no certain task, but gleaning hints from preseason and past experience, one can assume that Robinson will opt for his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and a strong lineup. There are no injuries officially listed, but knocks in preseason may affect some choices.
Their projected lineup is as follows: David Ousted in goal; from right to left – Steven Beitashour, Kendall Waston, Pa Modou Kah, and Jordan Harvey across the back-line; Matias Laba and Russell Teibert sitting deep in midfield with Nicolas Mezquida, Pedro Morales, and Kekuta Manneh further afield; Octavia Rivero will top the formation
That is the lineup that trotted out in their final preseason match, which should provide some indication, but as Robinson himself cautioned at the start of February, "I’ll try out a few different combinations; if you’re trying to read anything into teams, then good luck to you."
The two major question marks around that prospective lineup are Mauro Rosales and Darren Mattocks.
Rosales, now a 34 year-old veteran, was held out of that final warm-up, but could very likely take up that right-sided midfield slot in place of Mezquida, if fit. As cautioned in this very preview prior to the 2013 opener between the clubs, there is no need to hurry a veteran into a match – the season is long; DeMerit was rushed back and snapped his Achilles' just minutes after the start.
Mattocks has proved a bit of a conundrum, alternating real signs of talent with a frustrating lack of finish, though it should be stated he appeared a much more intelligent, team player for much of last season after a brash rookie campaign. He too is a candidate for that right-sided position, or even for Manneh's spot on the left. Bustos and Kianz Froese are long shots to be included there; the same could be said for McKendry.
Deeper in the midfield Gershon Koffie could take up Teibert's role alongside Laba, while Rodriguez would be the most likely alteration to the proposed back-line, probably for Kah. Christian Dean and recent draft pick Tim Parker are on the fringes of the centre-back positions and are more likely to see time in the Voyageurs Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League - in which Vancouver will represent Canada (by default, having placed highest in MLS last season) and with WFC2, their nascent USL side. Youngsters like Sam Adekugbe and Ethen Sampson are outside shots to feature in place of either of the full-backs.
Returning to the striker position, Erik Hurtado, like Rosales, was completely left out of that final preseason game, though he did feature in the previous one against Norwegian club, Stabaek. Mattocks too is an option up top, while Caleb Clarke has returned from a loan spell in Germany to bolster the attacking arsenal.
Interestingly, former TFC and Chicago Fire poacher Robert Earnshaw has been trialing with Vancouver. A former teammate of Robinson's at both Norwich and with the Welsh national team, Earnshaw would be a wise pick-up, though nothing official has been announced at time of printing.
There is no chance, barring last-minute injury, that a keeper other than Ousted, who featured in every single minute of MLS play last season, will not start. Vancouver has solid back-up options in Paolo Tornaghi, and Marco Carducci.
Regardless of whom Robinson opts to field come Saturday, Vancouver will no doubt provide a stern test for Toronto.
Vancouver's fourth season in MLS ended in disparaging fashion. Having crept into the fifth and final playoff spot in the West with 50 points, one more than Cascadia foes, Portland, they fell at the first hurdle, losing 2-1 in Dallas in the Knockout Round on an 84th minute penalty kick converted by Michel after Hurtado had responded to Tesho Akindele's opening goal.
That said, it was their second appearance in the post-season – so much for five-year plans, having become the first Canadian team to reach the MLS Cup thrill back in 2012.
Having accumulated a record of twelve wins, eight losses, and fourteen draws through 2014, Robinson's side has looked good in preseason – for what that's worth – amassing a record of four wins, two losses, and two draws through eight matches.
They began preseason in Tuscon, Arizona, playing a series of matches against MLS competition at the Kino Sports Complex, winning their first game 2-0 over New England – Rivero introducing himself with a brace, drawing 1-1 against San Jose – Manneh the goal-scorer after Paulo Renato gave the Earthquakes an early lead, and losing 1-0 to Houston – on a Jermaine Taylor tap-in.
A 0-6 romp over the UVic Vikes back in British Columbia followed – Rivero scoring again, while Morales, Teibert, Bustos, Rodriguez, and Froese all got in on the fun, before hitting the road once more, bound for Portland and the Simple Invitational Tournament.
A young Whitecaps eleven would lose 2-1 to Timbers 2, Portland's USL side, in a warm-up match – Bustos scoring the lone Vancouver goal, with Fatawu Safiu and Eueller Rodriguez notching for the Baby Trees, but the first team would go unbeaten through the tournament proper: winning 0-1 over the real Timbers – Kah scoring a header against his former club; 3-2 over Stabaek – Mattocks registering a first-half brace after Mezquida put the 'Caps ahead (Andres Trondsen would score from the penalty spot and a Harold Gomez own-goal led to a nervy finish); and drawing 1-1 against Chicago on Saturday – Kah again with the header, only for Shahdon Winchester to equalize in the final minute.
Like the rest of MLS, last season Vancouver relied heavily on home form, losing just three of seventeen league matches at BC Place, winning nine and drawing the other five.
Having spent the majority of preseason on the road, Saturday will mark Vancouver's first match at BC Place since last October – a 1-0 win over Colorado. The Whitecaps went unbeaten through five matches at home to close the year, winning their final four; their last lost came at the end of August to Portland, by a scoreline of 0-3.
A stern test indeed for a TFC side still finding itself with a long season ahead.
Part Two, reviewing the game film and highlighting some points of interest, will be posted in due time.