After a well-deserved two week break, Toronto FC returns to MLS play with an interesting match on Saturday, one that welcomes expansion side New York City to the recently less-than-friendly confines of BMO Field.
Riding a three-game winning streak, and unbeaten in four, TFC has won their last two at home, a combination of runs that they will look to extend.
When the schedule was released, it was plain to see that Toronto's season could be broken into phases. The first was that long road trip, then a hectic stretch of matches, leading into a calmer summer; at least before the Gold Cup call-ups start to withdraw players from the lineup.
Following that theme, and after a three-match week to close June (handily all at home), July provides a period of relative calm – aside from the nervousness of those impending international absences, with weekly matches, before crunches in August and September cram in a few extra fixtures.
As such, this spell provides a vital chance to collect some points, solidifying a much-promised playoff position prior to the sprint to the finish.
When last Toronto played, a 1-2 win in DC courtesy the scintillating form of Sebastian Giovinco, it was a statement game. Gone are the days of late concessions – knock on wood; Toronto now scores at the end rather than conceding.
Combine that result in DC with an earlier draw against then high-flying New England and even the road form, long a thorn in the side of any aspirations, seems to have turned a corner – not time to herald that achievement yet.
And were it not for an Orlando City win while TFC was away, the result against DC United would have seen Toronto climb up into third-place in the East. They still sit comfortably in fourth, with games in hand on teams above and below – their points-per-game is second best in the Eastern Conference.
If that all sounds a little too good, that is because it is. Toronto has been in such lofty position before, only to plummet in the face of the rising intensity as the season progresses.
And Saturday's match is potentially a trap, as a rested (read: rusty), confident Toronto must face an undervalued opponent that is scrapping to keep their own playoffs aspirations alive.
Had this match been played weeks ago, New York City would have been in the midst of a long, miserable winless streak, but wins in Philadelphia and at home against Montreal have buoyed their spirits.
A closer look at this week's opponent, New York City FC, is in order.
Long-rumoured as Don Garber's dream, it came as no surprise back in May of 2013 when it was announced that the twentieth MLS franchise would be a second team in New York, this one within the city proper.
Backed by the big money of Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees, or put more correctly, City Football Group and Yankee Global Enterprises – ominous sounding corporate ventures – only the best would suffice. In that spirit, the club reached out to Jason Kreis, he of Real Salt Lake salvation, to build the new franchise, in conjunction with Director of Football Operations, Claudio Reyna, and the rest of the front offices.
With less than two years from announcement to the first kick of the ball, Kreis set about building his side through a variety of means, combining high-profile (and less-so) international talents, with a plethora of MLS-experience, including several of Kreis' former charges from his days in Salt Lake.
Spanish World Cup winner David Villa was the first high-profile signing before a series of trades and a key free transfer acquisition gave the first indications of what this iteration of City had in mind: Jeb Brovsky arrived from Montreal, Andrew Jacobson from Dallas, Kwame Watson-Siriboe from Salt Lake, and Josh Williams from Columbus, while former LA Galaxy keeper, Josh Saunders, was signed on a free.
The Chivas USA Dispersal Draft saw Matt Dunn join the club, while the 2014 Expansion Draft in December saw ten further players (well, nine by the end of trading) – Ned Grabavoy, Patrick Mullins, Jason Hernandez, Tony Taylor, Mehdi Ballouchy, George John, Sal Zizzo, Thomas McNamara, Chris Wingert, and Dan Lovitz (who was returned to TFC, NYC having extracted some prized allocation money for their troubles) – ushered into the fold.
Before the end of the month, goalkeeper Ryan Meara joined on loan from the Red Bulls, which was a bit odd, while Sebastian Velasquez joined on a separate trade from Salt Lake, and another keeper, Akira Fitzgerald arrived on a free.
With January, the squad really began to take shape. More free transfers were applied: Ecuadorian defender Andres Mendoza (he was waived without much fanfare in May); US International Mix Diskerud, owner of too many Yankees caps, as well, while forward Khiry Shelton was selected second-overall in the 2015 SuperDraft and Connor Brandt at the 23rd pick; the dynamic Kwadwo Poku was transferred from the Atlanta Silverbacks of NASL at that time as well.
Somewhere in there it was determined that Chesea FC's Frank Lampard would be the second designated player, but that fairytale start was delayed when he caught on at Manchester City while 'staying fit' for the start of the MLS season.
With First Kick, though it is not called that any more, looming, February brought a further flurry of moves. Another free signing in Slovenian striker Adam Nemec and Colombian midfielder Javier Calle, joined on loan from Independiente Medellin.
Even as league play commenced, Kreis did not stop, bringing in Spanish midfielder Pablo Alvarez on a free, as well as another keeper, Eirik Johansen, a towering 22-year old Norwegian, formerly part of the Manchester City set-up. Shay Facey, a tough-tackling, attacking full-back was acquired on loan from City's Elite Development Squad (EDS).
And most recently, a few more moves saw a further trio of defenders arrive: RJ Allen joined on a free, Angelino on loan from City's EDS, and Athletic Bilbao veteran Andoni Iraola. The final two moves were made just this past week.
Heading into Saturday's match, Kreis has a few injury concerns that will limit his options. The most recent injury report has six players unavailable – George John recovering from knee surgery, Tony Taylor out for the season after suffering an ACL rupture, Josh Williams with an adductor injury, Javier Calle with an adductor strain, Khiry Shelton out with an MCL sprain, and Connor Brandt with another adductor strain.
A report released by the club ahead of their US Open Cup match against the New York Cosmos had Meara added to it – an adductor problem as well – while both John and Taylor were not listed; presumably as both are dealing with longer-term issues and have been placed on the Disabled List.
Lampard, after that unseemly affair, is set to join the club on July 1, so will not be a factor in this meeting.
The Open Cup match provides further uncertainty towards what eleven Kreis will trot out come Saturday, as he went with a largely first-choice side, barring Saunders in goal and Villa up top, both of whom will undoubtedly return.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Josh Saunders in goal; from right to left – RJ Allen, Jason Hernandez, Chris Wingert, and Shay Facey along the back; Mehdi Ballouchy, Andrew Jacobson, Mix Diskerud, and Ned Grabavoy through the middle; with David Villa paired in attack with Kwadwo Poku
With this being their third match in a week, there could well be a variety of changes, and despite the results, Kreis has built a rather deep side.
Starting at the back, Allen, Facey, and Hernandez will be playing a third-game in the week, so they could be rotated. Hernandez has been a fixture in the side, so he will likely feature – he came off after an hour, so got a bit of rest. Wingert was left out until then, coming on for Hernandez in the 64th minute, likely splitting the match so both could go on the weekend.
Watson-Siriboe is the obvious candidate to slide into the middle if needed, while Facey appears to have played there in the Open Cup match. Brovsky is an option at either full-back spot.
Moving into the midfield is where guesses become more random. Ballouchy has been looking sharp, and Grabavoy is a regular, but Alvarez had a rare run-out midweek and could feature. McNamara too has looked very good in recent weeks, while Velasquez is a favourite of Kreis, who is never far from the pitch. Further complicating matters is that Poku is a midfielder by trade, so could be slotted either into the middle, or out wide, to get him on the pitch after a several strong showings.
Similarly, who will pair with Villa up top is a bit of a mystery. Mullins has featured a fair bit, so too has Nemec, who should have returned from international duty in time to contribute. Then there is Poku, who provides an additional measure of dynamism; he scored against Montreal and added a brace against the Cosmos midweek.
The only thing that is certain is that an hour before kick off, a lineup will be released.
New York City enter Saturday's match in good form, having won their last two and gone unbeaten through three, putting behind them that long eleven-match winless skid that dogged them from March 15 to June 6, with a win in Philadelphia.
That said, they still sit at the base of the Eastern Conference on fourteen points from fifteen matches, having won three, lost seven, and drawn five. Away from home that record slips to one win, four losses, and two draws.
The season began brightly however, nearly winning their first-ever match against expansion cousins Orlando City, only for a stoppage-time deflected free-kick from Kaka to cancel out Diskerud's 76th minute strike – the match would end a 1-1 draw.
City would carry that positive energy into the second week, beating MLS Cup Finalists, New England 2-0 in their home debut at Yankee Stadium. Villa scored the first home goal in club history and Mullins made it two in the final ten minutes of play.
But a scoreless draw in Colorado – they would play the final eight minutes down a man with Facey seeing a second yellow - would herald a sour turn.
Losses against Kansas City – 0-1 on a goal from Ike Opara – and in Philadelphia – 2-1 on goals from Zach Pfeffer and a stoppage-time winner from Vincent Nogueira either side of a Villa strike – were followed by a 1-1 draw against Philly as they played the home leg of a four-day, back-to-back series in New York – Ballouchy put the hosts in the lead, but CJ Sapong struck for the visitors, denying them a much needed win.
April would close with a pair of losses: 0-1 against Portland – Dairon Asprilla the goal-scorer in the 79th minute - and in a 1-0 in Chicago – David Accam scored the only goal of the game.
That losing streak would extend to four-straight with further defeats against Seattle – 1-3, an Obafemi Martins brace and an assist on Clint Dempsey's goal, overpowering Ballouchy's second of the season - and a 2-1 defeat to New York rivals, the Red Bulls, at Red Bull Arena in the first New York derby of the season – Bradley Wright-Phillips scored minutes into each half, before Mullins found some late consolation in the 76th minute. City had a man-advantage for nearly an hour, but could not make the most of it.
While it may have been a disparaging defeat, that match heralded another turn.
A 2-2 draw in Chicago, despite going down a man with Allen's 26th minute red card – Razvan Cocis and Jeff Larentowicz scored inside of 27 minutes, the latter from the spot after Allen's double jeopardy, but Ballouchy nabbed on in first half stoppage-time and Shelton equalized in the 91st minute - was followed by an emotionally-charged loss in Salt Lake, where Kreis and company returned to their old stomping grounds – John Stertzer and Alvaro Saborio provided the goals - before a 1-1 draw back home against Houston – Will Bruin and Villa exchanged first half strikes - closed May on a more solid footing.
With June came the results, as they finally beat Philadelphia at the third time of asking and getting their first road win in the process with a 1-2 result. Sapong, in the 46th minute, scored again for the Union, but McNamara and Mullins would overturn the result.
And last weekend a 3-1 win over Montreal marked their first-ever winning streak. Villa scored in the 31st minute and Diskerud padded that advantage in the 76th. Wandrille Lefevre drew one back in the 88th, but Poku scored his first in MLS in the 90th minute to close the match.
However they suffered a setback midweek when they fell to their other hometown foes, the New York Cosmos, in the US Open Cup. They drew 2-2 in regulation – Poku scoring twice in the opening 57 minutes, but Leo Fernandes and Lukcy Mkosana responded in the 65th and 90th minutes, respectively. The Cosmos would take the shoot out 4-3.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted tomorrow morning