Still reeling from one of their worst outings of the season, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Wednesday night with the first of ten home games that will define their season.
Thus far it has been a roller-coaster ride. The long road trip, a solid spring, and a soft summer. Recent weeks have seen results hard to come by. Toronto has won just once in their last six – four of which were away from home – but have lost just twice in that same run, scavenging points when possible with gutsy come-from-behind draws in Columbus and New York.
But with the winds of home at their backs, it has been better – unbeaten through three with two wins and a draw.
The last month, with trips to Los Angeles, New York, Columbus, and New England, was always likely to be a difficult one. And there are more such perils ahead with visits to the Red Bulls, Seattle, NYC FC, and Montreal remaining, but home is where the points matter most.
With a record of four wins, two losses, and a draw in their seven contests, Toronto is poised to collect some points and push them back above of the Eastern Conference mire, where ten points separate second from last – the recent setbacks have seen them drop to fifth on 28 points, three points behind third and fourth, and just one ahead of Montreal and Orlando City.
Now is the time to put that summer slog in the past and look forward to the home stretch with a playoff berth just visible on the horizon.
That journey begins on Wednesday night with a match against Florida's expansion upstarts. Much of what was written prior to their April meeting – Parts One and Two – rings true, but a closer look at the midweek opponent, Orlando City SC, is in order.
Orlando enters Wednesday's match in good spirits and with goals in their boots, having put four-match losing and five-match unbeaten streaks behind them with a 5-2 demolition of Columbus on the weekend. They have scored eight goals in their last two matches having gotten just two in the previous four.
Having split their opening six matches – two each of wins, draws, and losses – Orlando's 0-2 loss to Toronto at the end of April continued a winless run that stretched to four matches with a draw against New England and a loss in DC; it began with a loss in Columbus.
That run saw them drop down the Eastern table, but a cracking 4-0 win over Los Angeles on May 17 heralded a turn, kick-starting a five-match unbeaten run. Draws in San Jose and against Columbus would close the month, followed by wins in Chicago and against DC.
Meanwhile, a shootout victory over Charleston Battery allowed them to move on in the US Open Cup.
Orlando lost their next league match on just three days rest following extra time and penalty kick exertions in the cup, falling 2-0 at Montreal – Donny Toia opened the scoring in the 36th minute and Dom Oduro sealed the result in the 93rd minute with a second.
But Orlando rebounded, again on minimal rest, to win back home 2-0 against Colorado – Cyle Larin and Kaka scoring in a three-minute spell - and then progressed to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup by the same score-line at home against the Crew.
Four days later – their sixth match in twenty days – Orlando would gut out a 1-1 draw in Salt Lake, despite losing Kaka at the end of the first half to a red card. The Brazilian had given the visitors an early lead, but Sebastian Jaime levelled in the 28th minute. Orlando would survive the dismissal, holding the score to earn a point.
Losses back home against Dallas and the New York Red Bulls would follow, falling 0-2 in each, thanks in part to further red cards. Mauro Diaz gave Dallas a half-time lead with a penalty kick in the final seconds of the half and David Texeira made it two in the 64th minute. Carlos Rivas had a chance to pull one back in the 89th minute, but sailed his penalty kick over the bar.
Luke Boden was dismissed in stoppage-time for a second bookable offense that had minimal impact on the result, while Larin was sent off after 32 minutes against New York for a sliding challenge on Sacha Kljestan that was later rescinded.
Kljestan had given the vistors the lead eleven minutes earlier and Mike Grella would add a second in the 91st minute to close the match.
In between, they crammed in a friendly against West Bromwich Albion, winning 3-1 over the Premier League side.
Orlando would drop out of the Open Cup with a disappointing 3-1 loss to Chicago, returning to league play with a thrilling, but ultimately disappointing, expansion derby in New York, falling 5-3 in an eight-goal explosion.
David Villa scored in the final throes of the first half, while seven goals poured in through the second frame.
Larin levelled in the 50th minute, but Javier Calle responded three minutes later. Larin scored again in the 61st, only for Villa to nab his second in the 67th minute. Tommy McNamara put New York ahead by two and Larin completed his hat-trick in the 85th minute, setting up a photo finish.
Kaka stood over a free-kick in stoppage-time with the equalizer on his boot, but his effort struck the base of the post, and New York countered, Mix Diskerud sealing the night with a 93rd minute strike.
Orlando would rebound back home the next week, trouncing Columbus 5-2.
Federico Higuain scored first, giving the Crew a fifth-minute lead, but Orlando countered with five straight tallies. Larin and Darwin Ceren scored before half-time, while Larin completed his brace in the 53rd, a goal followed by further net-bulges from Aurelien Collin and Cristian Higuita. A late Collin own-goal in the 91st minute would complete the scoring.
Like Toronto, Orlando has a weekend match looming, returning home for a Saturday encounter with Philadelphia.
April 26 Orlando City 0: Toronto 2
A pair of goals from Jozy Altidore were enough to put an end to Toronto 's four-game losing streak, the second of three wins in the midst of that seven-game road trip to start the season.
He grabbed his first in the 50th minute with a low right-footed drive that kissed in off the left-post after a strong run up the right-channel, playing a one-two with Sebastian Giovinco before walking past a weak challenge from Seb Hines to create a shooting chance. A wonderful individual effort from the big striker, an indication of that which he is capable.
A second would come to the off-season acquisition in the 83rd minute when a long ball from Benoit Cheyrou allowed Altidore behind Hines, twisting up the recovering defender and keeper, Donovan Ricketts, to place an awkwards left-footed finish into the open net having frozen the both of them.
Though the score-line implies a certain comfort in victory, there were plenty of chances for Orlando to score. If Toronto wants to win another, they will have to be better than they were in those early days of the season.
Before embarking, a caveat: predicting lineups for congested parts of the schedule carries an extra level of doubt, especially without current injury lists – with that in mind, any updates will be noted in the comments section.
Heading into Wednesday, Adrian Heath has a relatively healthy squad, aside from four long-term injuries: Tony Cascio has yet to feature this season due to back troubles; Kevin Molino tore his ACL in an early season friendly; Brek Shea required sports hernia surgery that has him sidelined; and most recently, Harrison Heath dislocated his knee-cap (ouch) in the West Brom friendly.
UPDATE – the injury report has those same four players listed as the only concerns.
Injuries aside, Orlando has made a few roster changes in recent weeks. Corey Ashe was acquired from Houston in a trade with allocation money and a pick in next year's SuperDraft Texas-bound. Keeper Donovan Ricketts, who was on the bench due to the return to fitness of Tally Hall, was traded to LA, and Amobi Okugo was sent to Sporting KC with Servando Carrasco heading in the other direction.
They waived Sean St Ledger for the mysterious 'serious breach of club policy', and added Adrian Winter, a Swiss midfielder, and defender David Mateos, who grew up in the Real Madrid youth system and most recently played in Hungary, last Wednesday – whether they will get debuts remains to be seen.
Further complicating matters is that Heath has rarely featured the same lineup twice, a combination of injury, suspension, and international duty leading to a revolving door of starters.
Their projected starting eleven for Wednesday is as follows: Tally Hall in goal; from right to left – Rafael Ramos, Aurelien Collin, Seb Hines, and Corey Ashe across the back-line; Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuiat sit deep with Servando Carrasco, Kaka, and Carlos Rivas ahead in midfield; Cyle Larin tops the formation.
There are plenty of potential alterations. Ramos missed the last few weeks, but has been taken off the injury report – though he was not in the 18 on the weekend. If he does not return, Tyler Turner did well on the weekend.
Luke Boden has been a utility player, who could pop up in that position, though he seems to be a left-sided player, having featured at left midfield against Columbus with Ashe locking down the left-back slot.
Lewis Neal and former Red, Eric Avila are similarly versatile midfielders, who can take either attacking or defensive roles, while Pedro Ribeiro, their big striker, has featured on the flank, or in the hole, when Kaka was suspended. Given Larin's form, it is unlikely he will lose his position, though Heath could opt for a two striker system. One can overlook nothing with Heath, a wily coach who is not afraid to make drastic changes, twice rolling out 3-4-3 like formations when choice dictated.
On top of all that, the likes of Bryan Rochez, a young designated player, and Danny Mwanga, have yet to see much time in their preferred striking positions.
It would not be a huge surprise if Heath, preferring to concentrate on the weekend, made some unexpected changes for the long midweek trip, but one can never bank on surprises. Will have to wait and see.
A few updated strengths and weaknesses heading into Wednesday:
Larin is in scintillating form, having scored five goals in their last two matches. He is incredibly strong on the ball and very good at finding half-chances.
His first goal of three against New York City, winning a bouncing ball by out-muscling defender Jefferson Mena before beating Josh Saunders with a low drive:
But it is not just his physical strength that makes Larin such a threat, it is also his sublime timing of runs and his spatial awareness that is of concern.
His third goal in New York exhibited the latter, shading just enough to the left in order to open up the lane for Kaka to find him with a pass – and what a finish, while the former can be seen in his first against Columbus, delaying his arrival perfectly to both avoid the centre-back coverage and get the needed touch on the cross:
Toronto will have to keep a close eye on Larin – easier said than done – matching his movements and doubling up on him when possible.
One of the reasons Larin has been so successful is that with Kaka on the pitch, opposition defenses are forced to focus on the Brazilian maestro, thus allowing Larin to exploit that inattention.
Never take one's eyes off a player of Kaka's calibre – even when a play looks over, he can find ways to do harm. Columbus made that mistake, relaxing when it appeared the ball was to roll out for a corner kick, only for Kaka to stride over, collect, and set up Ceren for a cracking finish:
As if those two were not enough of a handful, with Carlos Rivas on the pitch, Orlando has plenty of speed to keep defenders on the back-foot with the constant threat of a ball over the top or a through-ball splitting them open.
Orlando also makes excellent use of their width. Prior to the first meeting, it was Shea who was the concern, maurauding up the left-side to fling service into the area. Ashe has taken up that role, twice picking out Larin against Columbus – see above, thanks to a lovely cross-field ball from fellow newcomer, Carrasco – to craft goals.
Larin's second against New York is instructive – a through-ball from Ceren springs Rivas, whose pull-back is met by Larin for the finish:
Right-back is a concern for Toronto, has been all season. It may be the perfect time for Josh Williams to make his debut, solidifying the defensive right.
At the back, one of the issues Orlando has struggled with, a soft centre, has been the result of their inability to field a consistent defensive outfit.
Collin was meant to lead the back-line, but has been in and out of the lineup. St Ledger is now gone and Hines looks solid, so Heath seems to have found his core, but they will need some time to build the partnerships. Ceren and Higuita provide a solid shield, though they can be caught out of position, and there is always a risk of separation between lines.
That softness has reared it's head in recent weeks. Villa was allowed to bring down a ball and shoot to open the scoring in that eight-goal explosion, while Kljestan's goal was due to a combination of space and hesitancy in that same area, between the top of the box and 25 yards out:
Toronto should look to get into those positions. Giovinco will be marked tightly, but Jonathan Osorio, who finally broke his drought, can pop up there, while the likes of Cheyrou or, if fit, Michael Bradley, could also find and take chances from there.
If threatened directly by a charging run, such as those from Kwadwo Poku, that led to two goals for NYC FC. First he found Villa, who was able to walk in from the left for a shot, before another charging run allowed him to play to McNamara, wide open on the left, to slip in on goal:
What kills Orlando on both those plays is that when confronted by the ball-carrier, they complete forget all other responsibilties, allowing other players to get into position. Charging runs from Toronto, from either Giovinco, Bradley, or Osorio, could cause those same problems.
Orlando is aware of that frailty, but that just causes more problems.
Take Higuain's opener from the weekend – Collin tries to shot Justin Meram's run by stepping up, but that just opens the lane that Higuain uses to score:
It is unfortunate that Altidore will not be available, as he would have a field day with those channels as he did in the first meeting, but Toronto has plenty of options to take those spots. Robbie Findley has struggled to find his form this season, but those timely runs were his jam in Salt Lake, so perhaps this is the game he does it.
It will important for Toronto to commit runners into the area – something that has been absent in recent struggles – Dallas' second goal came when Orlando failed to track and match the runs of Fabian Castillo and goal-scorer David Texeira.
One final note, Orlando has had some significant disciplinary problems this season, whether it be diving or red cards (six different players have been sent off). Toronto could look to get under their skin, or put them under pressure and see how they react.
This is just the second all-time meeting between the two clubs, as mentioned Toronto won the first and will be hoping to extend that dominance. (Edit: Forgot to mention) The two clubs will meet for a third time later this month with Orlando returning to BMO Field on August 22.
Larin is on the verge of beating the MLS rookie record for goals – he tied Damani Ralph with eleven – and has twelve games remaining to surpass that mark. His is heavily-favoured to hoist the Rookie of the Year award if he continues this form.
This will be his first league match in Toronto, though he has played at BMO Field with Canada, scoring against Dominica in World Cup Qualifying, but unable to find the back of the net in the Gold Cup against Costa Rica.