That was pretty fun wasn't it?
It has been some time since a day out at BMO Field was that exhilarating. A match that had to be delayed due to the fountainous rains, soon enough gave way to sunshine and fireworks; that Sebastian Giovinco kid is pretty good.
But there is little time to revel in that satisfaction at the moment as another weekend brings another test, this time a precipitous one, as Toronto FC must travel to the American capital to face Eastern Conference and league leaders, DC United.
The lone road match in the midst of a month-long home stand, Saturday's trip to DC will be a difficult prospect, made all the more cumbersome with the realization that Michael Bradley, who has been excellent since finding a defined role in the side, will not be available – he is away with the US National Team for a pair of European-based friendlies. Given that this is not a FIFA window, it is a little odd he would be allowed to leave the team.
But if TFC is going to find success this season they will have to do so without their big names at times; both Bradley and Jozy Altidore, not to mention the Canadian talents of Jonathan Osorio and Ashtone Morgan, will all be unavailable at one moment or another. Word that Giovinco may be recalled into the Italian National Team only further stresses that the rest of squad will be required to step up and contribute.
The good news is that they did just that: the three goals against San Jose, were scored by three different players, two of whom nabbed their firsts of 2015, and there are more who are showing signs of life after a slow start.
When this home stand began it had to be seen as a chance to climb up the table into the reckoning at the top of the East; with each of the two matches Toronto has advanced one position, now into fourth with games in hand on those above and below.
Saturday will be a good opportunity to show that TFC truly belongs in that conversation. As such, a closer look at this week's opponent, DC United, is in order.
Entering his fifth season at the club's helm, Ben Olsen has returned DC United to their proper place as a perennial contender in the Eastern Conference. It was not always so; sometimes one must hit rock bottom before mounting a comeback.
DC finished last in the East in Olsen's half-season as interim, stepping up from an assistant's role after Kurt Onalfo was dismissed. 2011 was better, while 2012 saw them surge up to second in the conference, only to fall back to the basement, finishing last in 2013 on a woeful record of three wins, 24 losses, and seven draws.
But 2014 saw them comeback, making the remarkable leap from worst to first, taking the Eastern Conference regular season crown on 59 points, five shy of Seattle, who won the Supporters Shield.
That miracle season came to an abrupt end in the Conference Semifinals, falling 2-3 on aggregate to Atlantic rivals, the New York Red Bulls. DC won the home leg 2-1, but a 2-0 loss in New York in the first leg could not be overcome.
Disappointed, Olsen set about revamping a successful side in order to challenge again in the upcoming season.
The moves began with a trade that sent Joe Willis and Samuel Inkoom to Houston in a trade for Andrew Driver – who was not re-signed thereafter. Plenty of options were declined on squad players – the likes of Nana Attakora, Kyle Porter, Jeff Parke, Alex Caskey, and Conor Shanosky, exiting the club. Fret not, with the acquisition of Kofi Opare midway through last season, DC remains one of the few other MLS clubs willing to explore the Canadian talent pool.
They would lose a pair of players in the Expansion Draft: Thomas McNarmara, who had joined the club just a month earlier in the Chivas USA Dispersal Draft, was selected by New York City, while Lewis Neal was chosen by Orlando City.
Despite so many losses, DC still had a very strong assembly of players on the books, so Olsen was in no rush to fill out the squad, allowing for sage choices, rather than numerous ones. Finnish midfield Markus Halsti was the first signing in January. A few days later Jairo Arrieta was acquired via trade with Orlando City, nabbing the former Columbus forward for the cost of an international roster spot; he had only just been selected in the Expansion Draft.
Come February Michael Farfan was signed on a free transfer, the former Philadelphia draft pick returning from a spell in Liga MX with Cruz Azul. At the draft, with the seventeenth-overall selection, they picked Miguel Aguilar, an exciting wide attacker – at least, thus far. Their only other pick in the first two rounds, Dan Metzger, was released during preseason.
In the days prior to the start of the season, DC signed two undrafted players: goalkeeper Travis Worra and defender Luke Mishu, who went out on loan to USL affiliate the Richmond Kickers. They joined two DC homegrown players on loan spells in Richmond, Jalen Robinson and Collin Martin. Michael Seaton, the exciting Jamiacan teenage, is on loan to Orebro SK in Sweden this season.
One final addition came midway through May when free-agent Argentine midfield/attacker Facundo Coria came to terms with the club, helping address a position that has been plagued by injuries this season.
Heading into Saturday's match, DC has a handful of injury concerns that must be considered. Eddie Johnson has been unable to suit up all season as he continues to investigate a recently-discovered serious heart condition – he is unlikely to return this season, if at all. Farfan, meanwhile, is dealing with a hamstring concern, while left-back Taylor Kemp picked up a groin injury just recently; both of them are likely not ready to return.
It gets trickier to make judgment calls on a further trio of players on the most recent injury report: Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, and Nick DeLeon. DeLeon and Espindola, hamstring and groin, respectively, featured in a midweek encounter with Chicago, the first as a starter and the second off the bench, while Silva has missed the last four matches with a recurring hamstring issue. Olsen has said they have no interest in rushing him back, given the proclivity to re-injury; that said, it would be nice, for DC, not Toronto, to have him available to inflict harm upon his former club.
Further complicating matters, DC rested a trio of potential starters in that midweek match with knocks: first-choice keeper Bill Hamid – Olsen said he was being rested for Saturday, Chris Pontius, and Chris Korb.
And to top it all off, DC are in the midst of a gruelling run of eight matches in five weeks, and so Olsen has rotated heavily to get by. One thing is certain: Chris Rolfe will be available again following his one match suspension courtesy of a Disciplinary Committee decision.
Though a stab in the dark, DC's projected starting lineup for Saturday is as follows: Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left – Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Chris Korb across the back; Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Chris Rolfe through the midfield; Jairo Arrieta and Fabian Espindola paired in attack.
There is plenty of guesswork involved in that projection. Should Olsen have been bluffing about resting Hamid, Andrew Dykstra has filled in admirably as a back-up keeper for Hamid.
The back-line could see a few different changes. Steve Birnbaum could take Opare's spot alongside Boswell in the middle, or could see the field in place of Korb at left-back, if he is still unavailable, as Birnbaum did on Wednesday against Chicago. Birnbaum is the odd man out in the projection as he is the only one to have already played three matches over the two week period heading into Saturday.
In midfield, there are plenty of rotations available. Halsti has looked very good in recent weeks, taking up Arnaud's central role at times through this busy stretch. Jared Jeffrey, who scored a wonder goal against Toronto in an otherwise rout, is another option. And Silva lurks ominously in the background.
Aguilar has seen some time in the wide right-sided role, so he could feature there, and a fit Pontius would potentially slip into that left-sided spot with ease, while Coria too could feature somewhere in the more attacking parts of the formation. Conor Doyle is more a striker, but could be fielded out wide. Rolfe too has played more as a forward, but given fitness and form considerations, Olsen will want to get him and Arrieta on the field in addition to Espindola.
Rolfe and Arrieta could easily get the start as the striking duo, especially if Espindola is not fit for such a short-rest between appearances. While Doyle, Coria, or maybe even Silva could be handed a starting attacking role.
More recent injury updates may shine some light on the possibilities, but even then, the starting lineup will likely be shrouded in mystery until an hour before kickoff.
DC currently sits in first place in the Eastern Conference on 28 points from fifteen matches, seven points ahead of New England. They are two points ahead of Seattle for the league-lead, as well.
They are riding a two-game winning streak, both at home, and are unbeaten at RFK Stadium this season – a span of nine matches: six wins and three draws. Furthermore to that point they have not lost on their home field in a span of sixteen matches stretching back to last season, a figure that increases to twenty if all competitions are considered. Their last home defeat came nearly a year ago, falling 0-1 to Seattle on June 28, 2014.
Having fallen out of the CONCACAF Champions League at the knockout stage - losing heavily, 5-2, in Costa Rica to Alajuelense in the first leg, before winning 2-1 at home to some small solace – DC began their MLS campaign strongly, winning three of their first four matches – at home to Montreal and Los Angeles by 1-0 scorelines and away to Orlando by the same. Their only loss came to the then high-flying New York Red Bulls by a 2-0 scoreline in New Jersey.
They would drop further points to the Red Bulls, this time at home, with a 2-2 draw – a pair of goals from Kitchen were balanced out by Damien Perrinelle and Lloyd Sam in the final twenty-plus minutes of the game – before drawing another match 1-1, against Houston, in DC – Rolfe and Ricardo Clark exchaning strikes on either side of half-time.
That four-match unbeaten run would be stretched to eight with wins in Vancouver (1-2, Pedro Morales game the hosts the lead, only for Boswell and Rolfe to respond for the visitors), against Columbus (2-0, Espindola and Franklin the goal-scorers), a 1-1 draw against Kansas City (goals from Arrieta and Dom Dwyer in a span of three minutes before half-time), and another win back home against Orlando (2-1 on goals from Opare and Rolfe in the second half after Cyle Larin gave the visitors a lead in the eleventh minute).
A 1-0 loss in Philadelphia would put an end to that run – Zac Pfeffer providing the game's only goal in the 93rd minute.
The KC, Orlando, and Philadelphia matches kicked off the current fixture congestion. They would have a week's rest before resuming the blitz with a 1-1 draw in New England – Charlie Davies scored in first half stoppage-time, but Arreita responded in the 80th to preserve a single point.
They would lose again on the road, falling 1-0 to the Portland Timbers last Wednesday – an early strike from Max Urruti the difference between the two.
Revenge against Philadelphia would follow, winning 2-1 at home, but not without a bit of good fortune as Rolfe, who scored the winner, should have been sent off for kicking out at Vincent Nogueira following a foul – he was suspended and fined by the DisCo post-match. Sebastien Le Toux and Pontius exchanged goals in the first half before the deciding goal came in the 85th minute from the penalty spot following a Pfeffer handball.
And most recently, this past Wednesday, DC surged back for 3-1 victory over Chicago having fallen behind to a David Accam goal in the 28th minute, just removed from Dykstra denying Jeff Larentowicz from the penalty spot – the second half introduction of Espindola proving the catalyst for three unanswered goals, an Arrieta brace capped by a Doyle strike..
DC, especially given their home dominance, will provide a serious test to a Toronto side riding an improving spell of form of their own.
Part Two reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses will be posted tomorrow