With the all-star festivities passed and Toronto's revolving involvement made complicated by a spat of injuries, the second half of the season is set to kick off in earnest when the club returns to the pitch on Saturday in the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts.
Fifteen matches remain in the chase for that elusive playoff berth and Toronto finds themselves in a relatively good position, firmly ensconced above the dreaded red line on 28 points from nineteen matches.
That said, it is far from assured that this will be the season that dream comes true. TFC finds themselves in the midst of a troubled run, having won just once in their last five matches. Granted, three of those matches have been draws, and three of those games have been away from home, but collecting just six of fifteen available points is never good.
Add in an ever-lengthening injury list – currently up to seven players – not to mention that Collen Warner is suspended due to card accumulation, and that concern grows.
The addition of defender Ahmed Kantari, who has been cleared to make his debut on Saturday, is a promising start – Toronto needs desperately to shore up a leaky defense that has conceded twelve goals in their last four matches – but just how he will integrate into the side remains to be seen.
And Saturday's foes will be anything but accommodating of a Toronto side looking to keep a clean-sheet.
The Revolution have struggled since that mid-May meeting between the clubs. Much of what was written then – Parts One and Two – remains true, but still a closer look at this weekend's enemy, New England, is in order.
After a promising start to the season that saw the Revolution surge to the top of the East – they were in second when the clubs met on May 16 – New England have stumbled, riding a long futile streak that included separate six-game winless and five-game losing streaks, culminating in a total of two wins in their last fourteen matches.
Despite that, they remain firmly in the midst of the playoff race, tied with TFC on 28 points – they have played four more matches than Toronto, which has slightly inflated their position, and the three clubs tied on 24 points in the rear-view mirror all have games in hand.
The draw with TFC was the second-straight following five wins in six games, and would mark the end of a nine-game unbeaten run.
A tough loss on short rest in Kansas City would follow, before further draws at home against DC and LA, led into a loss away to Portland.
That six-game winless run would end with a 2-0 win over Chicago that offered only faint hope, as they would be dumped out of the US Open Cup via a 0-1 home loss to Charlotte, spiralling into the aforementioned five-match losing skid with losses in DC, Columbus, Dallas, and New York (to the Red Bulls) and at home to Vancouver.
2-1 losses in DC and Columbus were understandable, while that same scoreline at home against Vancouver – one of the league's foremost away-sides – is forgivable. But a 3-0 defect in Dallas – on goals from Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo, and Michael Barrios – and a 4-1 whooping in New York – Bradley Wright-Phillips scoring inside of four minutes and adding a second in the twelfth, either side of a Lloyd Sam strike to force an early three-goal lead; Andy Dorman would pull one back before half-time, but Anthony Wallace reinstated the gap and Sal Zizzo saw his attempt at a fifth from the penalty spot saved in the waning minutes – were an indication of a team struggling to find their identity, especially at the back, without the services of Jermaine Jones.
Jones' absence, which coincides with much of their struggles – he has missed the last nine – however, may be coming to an end.
They would rebound a week after the defeat in New York against the blue half of the city, beating NYC FC 1-0 back at Gillette Stadium. Lee Nguyen provided the goal in the twelfth minute and a red card to Ned Grabavoy early in the second half made the Revolution's first win in over a month more possible.
Following that up with a 2-2 draw in Chicago this past weekend – Nguyen struck first only for Shaun Maloney to respond from the spot before the half-time whistle; Razcan Cocis put the hosts in front, but Kelyn Rowe responded within two minutes to seal a point for the visitors – New England come into Saturday's match riding a two-game unbeaten spell.
The first time they have strung positive results together in two months.
May 16 New England 1: Toronto 1
New England took the lead in the 32nd minute through Juan Agudelo following an entertaining opening that saw both sides waste half-chances and Jozy Altidore leave the match with a hamstring concern. Agudelo got on the end of a right-sided London Woodberry cross, directing his header on to the far-side of goal having gotten position on Justin Morrow
Chris Konopka would deny the Revolution a second in the opening minutes of the second half, paving the way for Michael Bradley to score the equalizer in the 53rd minute following a lovely solo run capped off with a low right-footer past Bobby Shuttleworth.
TFC had the ball in the back of the net once more two minutes later, but Luke Moore was offside on the play, tucking a Bradley rebound into the open cage, and Toronto would have to see out some late Revolution pressure to preserve the draw.
Heading into Saturday's match, New England has two injury concerns – both Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes are listed as 'OUT' – but the major news on that front is that both Jones and starting keeper, Bobby Shuttleworth are no long unavailable.
Jones has been dealing with a groin problem that required surgery – he may be set to make his return this weekend having travelled with the team to Chicago and been available as a substitute.
Shuttleworth suffered a concussion and was sidelined for the last two matches, allowing Brad Knighton to deputize in his absence. Whether Jay Heaps opts to stay with the keeper who oversaw the two-game unbeaten run or return to Shuttleworth remains to be seen.
One final note on the injury front is that Chris Tierney pulled out of the All-Star Game, 'forced' out with an undisclosed injury concern.
Their projected starting eleven for Saturday is as follows: Brad Knighton in goal; from right to left – London Woodberry, Andrew Farrell, Jose Goncalves, and Chris Tierney along the back-line; Jermaine Jones and Scott Caldwell sitting deep with Teal Bunbury, Lee Nguyen, and Diego Fagundez spread further afield across the midfield; Charlie Davies will top the formation as the lone striker.
There are several question marks surrounding that lineup.
Shuttleworth could easily step back in for Knighton, while former TFC utility man and all-around nice guy, Jeremy Hall got the start at right-back in Chicago, a spot he could retain if Woodberry does not get the nod. Andy Dorman is a regular alongside the ever-present Caldwell, losing out to Daigo Kobayashi in recent weeks; should Jones not be ready yet, one of those two will take up that central midfield position.
The attacking quartet has been consistent over the last two results – no reason for Heaps to rock that boat – but both Rowe and Agudelo are starting calibre on either flank, should Bunbury or Fagundez drop out of the eleven.
A few additional scouting tips ahead of the match:
Following an MVP calibre season in 2014, Nguyen has been coming to life after a slow start. It took him a full month to open his account and a span of thirteen further matches to add a second. That said, he has goals in their last two; add in the assist from the match before, and he is on a three-game point streak.
He showed some of his signature quality in the build-up to Dorman's consolation strike against the Red Bulls, but it was against NYC that he found the back of the net, receiving a ball down the left-side of the area from Fagundez after a cheeky back-heel from Kobayashi at the top of the box:
Toronto will have to be very wary of both Nguyen and New England's ability to pick passes in heavy traffic with a bit of flair and panache, attempting and succeeding where other teams may not bother.
That same goal exhibits another Revolution trait that causes all sorts of trouble for the opposition: the overload and back-side run.
Much like Columbus last week, New England has a lot of firepower in their wide attackers, who will alternate cutting towards goal and hugging the touch-lines.
By compressing one side of the field, drawing all the defensive eyes to that side, New England opens up the opposite flank for a charging run into uncontrolled spaces.
Against City, Hall and Bunbury work on the right, focusing all eyes on that side, A one-two between Fagundez and Kobayashi creates some space in the middle and Fagundez picks out Nguyen on the left, where he is isolated one-on-one with Mehdi Ballouchy, a bad match-up for the defender:
The positioning and run of Davies is worth noting, by hanging off the shoulder of the opposite-side centre-back and inside the far full-back and then moving towards the compressed side with a run, Davies draws both defenders in-field with him, further opening up the back lane.
That was especially horrible defending by New York, but Toronto needs to be cautious to maintain their spacing and be aware of runners out of eye sight.
As if all of that movement was not enough to keep an eye on, New England can also throw runners from deeper to further confuse defenders.
Whether full-backs on the overlap – both Woodberry and Tierney are excellent crossers (the latter setting up Rowe for the equalizer in Chicago) – or Kobayashi, Caldwell, or Jones from deep in the midfield, Toronto will have to be aware of those additional pressures and put in the defensive work to track them.
The Fire failed to match Caldwell's run on the weekend, allowing him to steal ground and send in a low ball, leading to a Nguyen goal:
Toronto will need to do better than that and with Jones in the fold, the attack from deep just got a lot more troublesome.
Furthermore, Nguyen (and Co.) will shoot from anywhere, so he must be closed down with haste, even from ridiculous distances and positions.
One last concern: New England are big fans of the quick restart and other sneaky training ground routines, whether from free-kicks or corners. TFC needs to be on their toes at all times.
If that all seems insurmountable, New England can be had at the other end.
They were carved open in the run of play by the Red Bulls leading to Wright-Phillips' second, and their hesitancy on stepping to the ball-carrier on Sam's earlier goal was atrocious, but it was their woeful awareness on Wright-Phillips' opener in the 4th minute of a terrible defeat was is most instructive.
Farrell is in position, but worryingly allows New York's most dangerous player a measure of space inside the box. Woodberry seems to be occupied with the movement of Mike Grella, and the lack of communication between the two defenders allows Wright-Phillips to get on the end of a Sam ball from the right:
Altidore can find those same gaps and Toronto has plenty of players who can find space in the box and play that ball. Staying active and getting into those positions is crucial.
Compounding that lack of awareness is some horrendous marking on set-pieces – Goncavles has been all over the place this season – and a definite difficulty in clearing their lines: sometimes one needs to just put the laces through a ball and get it clear.
Razvan Cocis broke free on a corner kick in the first half, only for New England to be spared by an inopportune slip, but when Harry Shipp sent in another corner in the 75th minute, Cocis was on hand to capitalize on a ping-ponging ball around the box:
Not only was the marking troubled from the start, but the response to the ball evokes the phrase 'like chickens with their head's cut off', panicked, reactionary twists rather than calmly seeing out the pressure.
And Farrell's frozen feet as Cocis gets the needed flick on the ball is further proof of unsure defending.
Toronto has not made the most of set-pieces this season, one of the few genuine complaints that can be had about the attack. Getting numbers in the box, sending in dangerous balls (that beat the first man), and maintaining pressure with calm patience, are all assets that could prove fruitful on Saturday.
This is the second of three meetings this season between the two clubs, the third will be played on September 13 in Toronto.
The two have met twenty times in league play with New England winning eight, Toronto four, and eight ending as draws. Nine of those have taken place at BMO Field, where each side has won twice and five have ended level.
New England are unbeaten in their last five against Toronto, a pair of 1-1 draws either side of three wins. TFC last won in the series in August of 2013 when an early Matias Laba strike stood as the winner.
The Revolution have won their last two trips to Toronto and are unbeaten through five, dating back to a 1-0 TFC win in 2010 when Chad Barrett scored the game's only goal.
There have been some very good features up over at the New England website, discussing soccer in the Caldwell family and Farrell's Peruvian roots; as always, their Far Post Podcast is worth a listen.