Still stinging from a disappointing week that saw them lose the long-awaited home opener and fall out of the Voyageurs Cup, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Saturday for a most difficult challenge.
Throughout the seven-game road trip that opened the season, the rally call was 'get through this and prepare for home', well, home has not yet been kind. A masterful road performance from Houston ruined what should have been a raucous homecoming, the Dynamo strolling out 1-2 winners against an oft-listless TFC.
Wednesday's 3-2 win over Montreal in the Voyageurs Cup was better, but was not enough to overcome the 1-0 loss in the opening leg; the decision to field a weakened side proving costly in the end.
And now they must return to the road for a dispiriting task: a trip to Foxborough, Massachusetts to face one of the Eastern Conference elites, the New England Revolution.
It is a matter for debate whether a club must compete with the teams at the upper echelon in order to make the playoffs – picking up points from the also-rans is likely enough to cross the line – but what is uncontested, is that in order to find any true success once in the playoffs, one must find a way to compete and beat the best.
Saturday offers TFC a chance to prove they can put the current struggles to the side and properly belong in those conversations, but it will not be easy.
A closer look at this weekend's opponent, the New England Revolution is in order.
Now well into his fourth season in charge of the club, Jay Heaps has proved himself to be one of the leading lights of the next generation of MLS coaches. Along with the likes of Jason Kreis, Ben Olsen, and Peter Vermes, Heaps has successfully made that transition from the pitch, as a former MLS player, to the managerial hot-seat – with a brief stint in the press-box in between.
Having failed to reach the playoffs in his first season – the Revs finished ninth in 2012 – Heaps has guided his club to consecutive top three finishes the past two seasons, reaching the Conference Semifinals in 2013 and the MLS Cup Final itself last season, falling to winners LA 2-1 in extra time. It was the club's fifth defeat in the final; always the bridesmaid.
With such a formidable squad at his disposal, Heaps was left to merely tinker around the edges in the off-season as they look to mount a similar challenge and overturn the cruelty of cup finals that has dogged the franchise.
A flood of players would exit the club: International strikers Dimitry Imbongo and Geoffrey Castillion were shipped out to Colorado; the likes of Tony Taylor, Andre Akpan, Donnie Smith, and veteran Shalrie Joseph had their options declined; while first-year forward Patrick Mullins, and Taylor too, or his rights at least, were selected by New York City in the Expansion Draft.
There were some significant losses, particularly at the centre-back position, where both AJ Soares and Stephen McCarthy, faithful servants on the back-line, exited the club, bound for Italy and Finland, respectively.
Heaps set about restocking his roster with a variety of moves.
December saw Jeremy Hall arrive fro m Toronto in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick; while January saw Sean Okoli arrive in a draft-day deal, this time with Seattle, that had the Revolution send their 33rd overall pick to the Sounders. They would re-sign Donnie Smith later that month, but it was the return of Juan Agudelo that turned heads.
Agudelo, who signed on a free, had excelled in a short stint with the club back in 2013, scoring seven goals in fourteen appearances, before trying his luck in Europe.
The Revolution would complete their transactions with a series of free transfers, most noteworthy among them was the acquisition of former FC Dallas homegrown defender London Woodberry, who has proved himself a useful addition in recent weeks.
One final signing worth noting was completed just this month, as Haitian midfielder Zachary Herivaux signed a homegrown deal of his own – far too soon for him to be a factor, but always interesting to keep an eye on how young talent is progressing.
And there may be another important addition forthcoming, as defender and US youth international Will Packwood has been training with the side. Formerly of Birmingham City, Packwood could be a useful addition to a back-line in need of shoring up. (On a personal note, I was at the match between Birmingham City and Leeds United in the FA Cup at Elland Road back in 2013 during which Packwood suffered a multiple leg break; a ghastly feeling to be there, so I wish him nothing but success and good health as he continues his career.)
With a relatively clear injury report – only Darius Barnes who suffered a patellar tendon injury at the end of April is 'out' – Heaps will have his the majority of his squad from which to choose.
The main question overhanging their starting eleven is the inclusion of Jose Goncalves, who has been a healthy scratch through the last four matches, coming on for just the final sixteen minutes against New York two weeks ago. With the club captain Goncalves out of favour, Jermaine Jones has been cast into an unfamiliar centre-back role to mixed results.
Their projected lineup for Saturday's match is as follows: Bobby Shuttleworth in goal; from right to left – London Woodberry, Jermaine Jones, Andrew Farrell, and Chris Tierney along the back-line; Andy Dorman and Scott Caldwell sitting deep with Teal Bunbury, Kelyn Rowe, and Juan Agudelo further afield; Charlie Davies will top the formation.
The only alteration from their starting lineup in Orlando last weekend is Rowe in the middle for Nguyen, who has yet to find the MVP-calibre form that saw him score eighteen goals and register five assists in 2014 – he has one goal and two assists through nine appearances this season. It's a bit of a toss-up as to which player will take up that central position, but Rowe has been in better form of late.
Along the back-line, the major consideration would be for Goncalves to come in for Jones, thus freeing the German-American to return to his midfield role, displacing one of Caldwell or Dorman. Kevin Alston is an option at either full-back position, but is unlikely to dislodge the incumbents. Heaps could then go with Jones alone in the defensive midfield and field both Rowe and Nguyen, but given Toronto's threat in that part of the pitch, such an offensive move would be risky.
In the midfield, Daigo Kobayashi is fit again, and given New England's hectic schedule ahead – more on that below - will see some minutes at some point. Former Red Jeremy Hall could see some minutes, as too could Steve Neumann or Donnie Smith, though they are more likely to come on from the bench.
Should Nguyen get the start in the middle, Rowe has featured on the right or left of midfield on occasion, though both Bunbury and Agudelo seem to be first choice in those positions. Same could be said for Diego Fagundez, whose playing time has dwindled with more experienced players arriving to the club.
Given the scintillating form of Charlie Davies, who has goals in their last four matches, it is highly unlikely that Sean Okoli or one of Agudelo or Bunbury moves into that centre-forward position.
New England enter Saturday's match in second place in the Eastern Conference on eighteen points from ten matches – three points behind DC United, who took sole possession of first, in both the conference and the league, with their midweek victory. Only Vancouver and Dallas, tied on twenty points, sit between New England and DC in the Supporters Shield race.
The Revolution have won five matches already this season, drawing a further three and losing twice. At home they are unbeaten through five, with three wins and two draws, so far this season. One must look back to July of last season for their last home loss in league play – a 1-2 Columbus victory; a run of thirteen matches, fifteen if the playoffs are included.
Further to the point, they will face Toronto riding an eight-match unbeaten run overall; were it not for two late goals in Orlando, the Revolution would be in the midst of a four-game winning streak. They have still won their last two at home.
But the season did not begin with such form.
New England went winless through their first three matches, losing a stinker 3-0 in Seattle on a Clint Dempsey brace and another from Obafemi Martins, and a 2-0 result against expansion New York City – David Villa and former Rev Patrick Mullins providing the goals (a 66th minute red card to Goncalves did not help), before collecting their first point the following round, back home against Montreal, in a scoreless draw.
They would earn their first win a week later, beating San Jose 2-1 at home – a Rowe brace giving them a first half lead; Chris Wondolowski's strike from the penalty spot was mere consolation - and follow that up with a second-consecutive result, taking the full points from their trip to Colorado with a 0-2 victory – Agudelo and Nguyen this time providing the ammunition, the second from the penalty spot.
Only to hit a speed-bump on their return home, with a scoreless draw against Columbus at Gillette Stadium.
A 1-2 win in Philadelphia – Davies and Bunbury responding in the second half to a first half Cristian Maidana belter - began a three-game winning streak that saw them demolish Real Salt Lake 4-0 – Tierney, Agudelo, Davies, and Caldwell, all getting in on the action - and hand the New York Red Bulls their first loss of the season with a 2-1 result – Davies and Bunbury again the goal-scorers with Sacha Kljestan responding too late for the visitors; both matches were played at home.
And they looked to have a fourth-straight win in the books when Davies and Rowe gave them a two-goal advantage in Orlando, only for The Lions to storm back through Cyle Larin and Aurelien Collin in the final fifteen minutes of the match to rescue a 2-2 draw.
The one positive Toronto can take from the scheduling of this tricky fixture is that New England has a busy week of their own ahead. On Wednesday they travel to Kansas City to face Sporting, and three days after that they face DC in a top-of-the-table clash for Eastern dominance. The following round sees them engage Los Angeles in a rematch of the 2014 MLS Cup Final; they will have other matches in the back of their minds. So there is a chance that New England may be found guilty of overlooking a meek Toronto threat.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strenghts and weaknesses, will be posted as soon as it is available