Pesky bye-week number two out of the way and coming off a disparaging three-straight defeats, Toronto FC must shake off that early season rust and woe as they prepare to return to action on Saturday.
It was never going to be a kind start to the season. Seven matches on the road, an irregular schedule, and the inability to build momentum and confidence in front of the home fans are not the conditions that make for good beginnings.
Excuses (ahem – facts) stated, much of the fault lies with the club themselves; they have not made their travails easier. Defensive miscues, disciplinary issues, and injury concerns have made a difficult task all the more unlikely.
Adding to that, the schedule, stop-start nature aside, has played its part. Three of the four opponents thus far are projected to do well, while the fourth – Chicago – is very much still an unknown, weeks into the season.
And it will be no easier come Saturday, when Toronto heads south to Texas for a duel with Western Conference opponents.
A closer look at this week's enemy, FC Dallas, is in order.
In his second season at the helm in Dallas, Oscar Pareja has continued to the evolve the team in his image, blending talented youth with international flavours to build a dynamic, attacking side. Add in a touch of veteran nous and one has a side primed for success.
As MLS turnover goes, Dallas' was on the lower end of the spectrum. Veterans Jair Benitez, Adam Moffat, Hendry Thomas, and Peter Luccin saw their options declined, while international recruits Raul Fernandez and Andres Escobar were handed that same fate.
They also lost oft-injured centre-back George John to New York City in the expansion draft.
Headed in the other direction was a good portion of MLS experience in Dan Kennedy, acquired in the Chivas USA dispersal draft, and Atiba Harris, selected in the Re-Entry process, addressing the loss of a starting-calibre goalkeeper in Fernandez and some grit in either the midfield or the outside back positions.
Kyle Bekker, formerly of TFC, was acquired via trade, he and another international - Colombian winger Michael Barrios – would bolster the midfield areas.
Add a few youngsters, in draft pick Otis Earle and homegrown Alex Zendejas, and Pareja has very much reinforced wherever the squad lacked after the end-of-season turnover commenced.
As such, Toronto can expect to face a very similar Dallas to last season's edition.
There are two major question marks hanging over their starting lineup for Saturday: the fitness of midfield maestro Mauro Diaz and centre-back Matt Hedges, both vital pieces of Pareja's side.
Diaz has missed the last three matches with what has been called a leg-foot injury (whatever that means - he did take a rather nasty elbow from Zach Pfeffer in his last match against Philadelphia, but saw out the majority of the match afterwards), while Hedges reportedly suffered a 'knock' in training. He never appeared on an official injury report. MLS clubs are becoming increasingly sly on disclosing the nature and extent of any minor concerns, which is understandable, but makes projection even more difficult.
Both have returned to training and could be available come Saturday; Hedges appears closer to certain than Diaz, whose injury troubles have plagued his otherwise glittering time in MLS.
And so, their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Chris Seitz in goal; from right to left – Atiba Harris, Zach Loyd, Matt Hedges, and Moises Hernandez across the back-line; Victor Ulloa and Michel sitting deep, with Tesho Akindele, Mauro Diaz, and Fabian Castillo across the top of the midfield; Blas Perez will top the formation.
There are plenty of options at Pareja's disposal.
Seitz has started every match this season, but Dan Kennedy is reportedly nearing return from concussion concerns and, given the blow out suffered at the hands of Colorado last weekend (more on that shortly), a change there could theoretically be considered. Such a move is highly unlikely; none of the goals were particularly the keeper's fault, Kennedy is still healing, and third-string teenage Jesse Gonzalez has no MLS minutes in his three seasons with the club.
Along the back, Dallas has shown a lot of variation.
Kelyn Acosta, nominally a central midfielder, has appeared at left-back, as has Loyd, who is an outside option on both flanks, while Michel was initially a left-back, before moving into midfield. Je-Vaughan Watson played at right-back on the weekend, providing yet another option there. Walker Zimmerman could take up a central role, one he has manned in their last two outings, and Hernandez too has the potential to take the field as a centre-back.
Defender Stephen Keel is injured, diminishing one choice, but Earle has yet to make his debut – another potential outside back.
In midfield, Ulloa has been ever-present, while his partnership with Michel has been the norm through their last five matches. Michel was removed at half-time for Bekker, who could be in line to get his first start after three substitute's appearances. Acosta too is an option there, though he saw a red card just seventeen minutes in his lone run-out this season and may still be in the doghouse for it.
The projected lineup presumes that if Diaz is ready, he will be back in, but overlooks the possibility that, given it is so early in the season, it would perhaps be wise to delay, get him to full health, before risking further injury.
Should Diaz not go, Akindele could move into that central role, playing as a roaming forward off the striker's shoulder – as he has in Diaz' absence thus far, or perhaps even Bekker could be placed in that spot – he appeared to take up such a role from the bench, albeit with only minutes remaining, against Kansas City.
On the flanks there are plenty of options too. Ryan Hollingshead, having lit up preseason, has shown very well, while Barrios is still learning the way of the league. And of course, Castillo is effective on either flank, though he seems to prefer cutting in from the left to get onto his right-foot. Should Akindele move centrally, Hollingshead is the more likely to take up that right-side.
And finally, up top David Texeira has more-or-less split time with Perez leading the line and either is a candidate, though Perez has obviously been the more productive of the two – scoring three goals to Texeira's zero.
Pareja has built himself a nice squad with plenty of moving pieces available.
Having finished fourth in the West last season, Dallas beat Vancouver 2-1 in the Knockout Round, only to fall at the first hurdle to Seattle in the Western Conference Semifinals. They would draw both matches against the Sounders – 1-1 at home and 0-0 on the road – but lose out on the away-goals rule.
Six matches into 2015, Dallas find themselves back in a familiar quandary – rising to the top spot in the table, only to suffer a set-back.
Last season, Dallas won five of their first seven, only to slump into an eight-match winless streak, which dragged them back to earth. This season three-straight wins to open were followed by a draw and a pair of losses, losing top spot in the West to Vancouver in the process.
They still sit comfortably in second place – both in the West and overall – tied with DC on ten points, having played one game more. Vancouver leads by three-points, but Dallas has a game in hand over the Whitecaps, having played six to Vancouver's seven.
An opening day win over San Jose – 1-0 at home with Perez scoring the winner in stoppage-time – was followed by a 3-1 victory over Sporting KC. The two exchanged first half goals through Perez and Roger Espinoza, before Perez added a second in the 52nd minute and Castillo sealed the result with another in the 73rd.
Their third-straight win would come on the road, beating Philadelphia 0-2 with Akindele and Hollingshead providing the goals in the second half, in part aided by a Zach Pfeffer red card, for that elbow on Diaz, in the first frame.
A 0-0 draw against Seattle would follow, both sides stripped of their international talents, and their first loss of the season would follow, 3-1 in Portland. Nat Borchers opened the scoring with a header, Akindele responded with a knee, similarly from a corner kick. But Max Urruti and Diego Chara goals in the second half would be too much for Dallas – and Pareja responded with Tissue Gate, offering Caleb Porter a rag for his tears, having cried foul a little too often for the Dallas manager's liking.
Most recently, Dallas would return home for a match last Friday against the struggling Colorado Rapids. Shockingly, the then league-leaders would fall 0-4 to the cellar-dwellers, falling behind inside of two minutes on a Dominique Badji goal and never recovering, as Dillon Powers, Gabriel Torres, and Dillon Serna added to the tally.
Dallas will be looking to bounce back from that embarrassing defeat, as well as hoping to end two and three match losing and winless slides. That makes them dangerous and unpredictable. Every team will have their ups and downs throughout the season, it is how they respond that determines their quality.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted shortly