A good start.
Though unimpressive, aside from that Sebastian Giovinco strike, and by the slimmest of margins, not to mention nearly undone late by a rash challenge from Chris Konopka, Toronto's 1-0 win over Portland last weekend was a good start.
When last this preview spoke, the point was made that the ensuing six-plus weeks of action would potentially be transformative for Toronto FC's 2015 season prospects. A run of a match per week (more or less), most of them at home, will allow the club a chance to surge up the table into the more secure playoffs positions in the Eastern Conference.
The three points were enough to move TFC up a single spot, now into a tie for fifth, on thirteen points, with a few games in hand on those above and below. More, however, is needed; another win in Saturday's match at BMO Field, depending on results elsewhere, could see them jump up even farther.
But the opponent may have other plans.
Toronto may have gotten their first home win and be riding a two-match unbeaten run, readily forgetting about the midweek friendly, but San Jose are no slouches, as Dominic Kinnear has his new club riding a five-match unbeaten run of their own into the weekend encounter.
A closer look at this week's opponent, the San Jose Earthquakes, is in order.
With the club having finished at the bottom of the Western Conference last season, on thirty points – a full twenty behind the final spot in the West – and Mark Watson already out the door, the Earthquakes turned to a familiar face, from seasons – and iterations – past.
An assistant coach under Frank Yallop before taking the top managerial position himself in 2004, Dominic Kinnear departed from the Bay Area with the club as they made the move to Houston prior to the 2006 season. But with his long tenure at the Dynamo coming to an end, it was time he returned to the place he called home for so many years.
Tasked with rebuilding a last-placed side, Kinnear set about assessing his flock and replenishing the stock throughout the off-season.
A pair of long-time club servants in Jason Hernandez and Jon Busch were allowed to leave – Hernandez was selected by New York City in the Expansion Draft, while Busch was out of contract, landing on his feet in Chicago. Hernandez had been with the club since their return, selected in the 2007 Expansion Draft, while Busch joined in 2010, having been waived by that same Chicago side.
A number of players – Andres Gorlitz, Billy Schuler, and Tommy Muller – had their options declined, while Atiba Harris, who was out of contract, was selected in the Re-Entry Draft by Dallas, where he now plys his trade.
The tricky Yannick Djalo, on loan from SL Benfica, saw his loan expire, while former TFC draftee Sam Cronin was traded to Colorado in exchange for allocation money.
With so many spots to fill, Kinnear wasted no time. Kris Tyrpak was acquired via the Chivas USA Dispersal Draft – he would be waived three months later – while another former Ameri-Goat, Leandro Barrera would join through the Waiver Draft.
Mark Sherrod, who spent his rookie season playing under Kinnear in Houston, was acquired through a trade with Orlando City after the Expansion Draft, while a trio of players were selected in the re-entry process, with Andy Gruenebaum, Marvell Wynne, and Sanna Nyassi, each catching the eye of the San Jose staff. Gruenebaum would eventually decide to announce his retirement, stepping up into the broadcasting booth instead.
Not done yet, the most crucial pieces were yet to come.
Fatai Alashe, a sturdy, energetic defensive midfielder was selected with the fourth-overall pick in the SuperDraft, while a third designated-player, Swiss striker Innocent Emeghara, who joins Chris Wondolowski and Matias Perez Garcia in those roles, was signed on a free transfer following his time in Azerbaijan. And finally, just days before the start of the season, defensive reinforcements were found in Portuguese centre-back, Paulo Renato.
Heading into Saturday's match, San Jose has several injury concerns – something that has plagued them for much of the season. Up top, Emeghara, who goes by the single name 'Innocent', is out with a torn meniscus, while bruising forwards Mark Sherrod and Steven Lenhart are both still out following knee surgeries. In the midfield, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, a cultured player, is nursing an ankle injury, while full-back Shaun Francis suffered a facial fracture earlier this season and is unlikely to be available.
Their projected starting lineup is as follows: David Bingham in goal; from right to left – Marvell Wynne, Victor Bernardez, Clarence Goodson, and Jordan Stewart along the back-line; Fatai Alashe will sit deep in the midfield with Chris Wondolowski and Matias Perez Garcia further afield; across the top Sanna Nyassi, Adam Jahn, and Shea Salinas will span the pitch.
That is the exact lineup Kinnear trotted out in their last two matches, though, of course, there are some options at his disposal.
Along the back-line, both Paulo Renato and former Red Ty Harden are candidates for the centre-back spots, should either Bernardez or Goodson need a rest. Cordell Cato is more a wide midfield option, but has seen some limited action at full-back as injury required.
In the midfield, JJ Koval is a defensive-minded option who has shared time with Alashe in that holding position; Khari Stephenson could go there too, while Leandro Barrera is more suited to an outside role on either flank, much like Cato.
Tommy Thompson, a young, exciting homegrown prospect has found minutes few and far between, but offers some skillful attack in the middle or as a second-striker. Were he to feature, one could imagine Wondolowski moving into a proper striking role, opening up a midfield spot for the youngster.
With Innocent injured, and Lenhart and Sherrod unavailable, denying Kinnear a battering ram up top, Jahn has taken up that central role, with varying degrees of success. Mike Fucito is the only other striker on the roster, but his playing time has been minimal.
As mentioned, San Jose enter Saturday's match unbeaten in their last five matches with wins over Houston and Columbus interspersed with draws against Salt Lake, Colorado, and Orlando City – three of those matches were on the road.
Sitting in a tie for fifth-place in the Western Conference on eighteen points from twelve matches, the season began on a sour note as Blas Perez' stoppage-time winner proved the difference in an opening day 1-0 loss away to FC Dallas.
San Jose would shock the league with a ten-man, 2-3 win in Seattle the following round – Clint Dempsey opened the scoring inside the first minute, but a Wondolowski brace and a third from Innocent overturned that result, despite Obafemi Martins pulling one back in the 84th minute. The Earthquakes would chase that victory with a 2-1 win back home over Chicago – Alashe and Harden put them ahead through twenty minutes, only for Harrison Shipp to draw one back before half-time for the Fire.
A pair of losses, in New England – 2-1 on a first-half, sixteen-minute brace from Kelyn Rowe; Wondolowski scored from the spot in the second frame – and back home against Salt Lake – Javier Morales scoring the only goal in the 44th minute – would follow. Before a third win of the season ended that run, winning 1-0 at home against Vancouver – Nyassi scoring in the 75th minute to seal the result, only to lose back on their travels, falling 2-0 in New York against the Red Bulls – first half goals from Sacha Kljestan and Mike Grella more than enough for San Jose to overcome.
After an extended absence from play, in part thanks to the rescheduling the Montreal match at the end of April for the CONCACAF Champions League Final, San Jose would embark on a successful three-match road swing in a span of eight days, drawing 1-1 in Salt Lake (Wondolowski scoring early, only for it to be cancelled by a Bernardez own-goal), winning 0-1 in Houston (Jahn the goal-scorer that day), and drawing 1-1 again in Colorado (Wondolowski taking the lead, only for James Riley's equalizer to come in the 93rd minute).
An impressive 2-0 win over Columbus would welcome them back from those travels – goals from Wondolowski and Salinas five minutes apart at the start of the second half overpowered a Crew side reduced to ten men with Mohammed Saeid's pair of bookings inside of 33 minutes.
And most recently, this past weekend, they drew 1-1 against Orlando City at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. Cyle Larin won the visitors a penalty kick that was converted by Kaka, only for San Jose to win their own minutes later, coolly dispatched by Wondolowski – it was his 100th career MLS regular season goal, entering the hallowed century club.
Part Two, hitting the game film for strengths and weakness, will be posted first thing tomorrow