On short rest after a marked disappointment, Toronto FC returns to the pitch for a midweek fixture on the road.
Nobody was happy with the weekend result at home against New England. Toronto were dominant throughout the match, but their goal-scoring, usually a strength, proved faulty, despite the strong build-up play.
That is a concern.
TFC has thrived this season when they score. To that point, an interesting statistic to consider is that when Toronto scores two or more goals, they have nine wins, two losses, and two draws. Clearly the ability to find the back of the net can make up for a lot of other short-comings.
By no means was the match against the Revolution a must-win, but still the clock is ticking. Should they wish to reach the post-season and be more than a foot-note in this season's MLS Cup chase, they need to put it all together; combine the free-flowing attack, with the goals, and shore up the back in the process. Is that too much to ask?
But with a midweek challenge ahead, there is little time to reflect. Best to dust oneself off, regroup, and run back out there, ready for the next one.
The second of three matches inside a week goes on Wednesday night, the opponent, a familiar one, this being their third meeting of the season.
Much of what was written before rings true, albeit with the additions of a few high-profile players since then, and so, a closer look at the next opponent, New York City FC, is in order.
Their expansion season has been a rocky one for Jason Kreis and company.
Their bravado heading in was admirable, but always a bit unrealistic; the first season is hard. Not only is the club coming together, but they then to have to deal with the hectic travel, injuries and international duty, as well as the tumult of mid-season acquisitions just as the side was coming into it's own.
Still, NYC FC have been a tough opponent, rarely being heavily outplayed.
They will enter the match with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, sitting in ninth-place in the East on 28 points from 28 matches; only four points off the pace, but having played more matches than the two currently in the final two places.
A point a game is nothing to shake a stick at, but in the end it may not be enough to reach the post-season. Six matches remain; Kreis and his charges are well aware of the challenge ahead.
With just one win in their last seven matches and currently mired in a three-match losing slide, each game increases in importance even further. They will be a dangerous, desperate foe; this has the making of a classic trap game.
The ridiculous 4-4 meeting between NYC and TFC in the middle of July came at the tail end of City's best run of form, returning to winning ways over Montreal following a derby loss the previous round had ended a three-game winning and four-game unbeaten streak.
That shocking draw fed into a loss, City falling 1-0 at New England to a 12th minute Lee Nguyen strike; hope of a comeback diminished when Ned Grabavoy was red-carded early in the second half.
They would win in another eight-goal thriller, beating fellow expansionists Orlando City 5-3 at Yankee Stadium at the end of July. The fireworks began in the final minute of the first half, David Villa kicking off the festivities, only for Cyle Larin to respond at the start of the second.
Javier Calle reinstated the lead, only for Larin to again reply. Villa again found the back of the net, as did Tommy McNamara, before Larin completed his hat-trick to pull the Lions within one. But Mix Diskerud would seal the result in the 93rd minute, squashing any hopes of another 4-4 draw.
August then began with a pair of losses against familiar foes. Losing 2-3 at home to Montreal – Dominic Oduro and a pair of Ignacio Piatti strikes too much for Villa and McNamara singles – and dropping a 2-0 result away to the Red Bulls – Bradley Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella scoring in either half.
With the need for points obvious, City rebounded from those disappointments, scrapping together a pair of results, first shocking DC United in New York with a come-from-behind 3-1 win – Alvaro Saborio scored first, but McNamara, Villa, and Kwadwo Poku responded – and then fighting to a 2-2 draw in Columbus – Kei Kamara and Cedrick Mawbati book-ending a brace from Poku.
But a rude awakening awaited them on short rest, dropping five more goals against in the 5-1 humbling at the hands of the LA Galaxy. Gyasi Zardes, Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, and Sebastian Lletget all scored before Villa put an 80th minute penalty kick in the net; less than a minute later Keane added a second, ensuring any celebration or hope was short-lived.
Columbus would revenge the earlier home draw with a 1-2 win when they visited City to close the month. Federico Higuain scored early, only for Andrew Jacobson to respond with a brilliant strike. But a moment of lax defending allowed Justin Meram to find the winner in the 83rd minute
Kreis and City would then enjoy a lengthy international break, a chance to rest and get healthy before embarking on the final two months of the season.
Their hopes of returning to winning ways were further dashed with a 2-1 loss in Dallas this past weekend, falling to a pair of goals at the end of the first half. Tesho Akindele stole in down the right to score in the final minute of regulation and Michel whipped in an Olimpico in the fourth-minute of stoppage-time; ouch. Patrick Mullins would find some consolation from the penalty spot, but it was too little, too late.
Even with the struggles, their home form is still solid, splitting results over their last five matches – two wins, two losses, and a draw.
It will not be an easy game for Toronto by any means.
July 12 New York City FC 4: Toronto FC 4
As if anyone needs reminding, the two teams played to a cracking 4-4 draw in July, a match that featured no less than four penalty kicks, of which only two were converted.
Villa scored the first from a free-kick, before a Damien Perquis own-goal, just seconds after Chris Konopka denied a Villa spot kick, gave the hosts a two-goal lead, but then Sebastian Giovinco, who had seen an earlier penalty kick bank off the base of the post, sprang to life, scoring a penalty kick in the 34th minute and adding two more within nine minutes to put TFC in front.
A Villa conversion from the spot levelled once more in the second half. Giovinco then set-up Marky Delgado to reinstate the Toronto advantage, only for an 84th minute Mullins strike to round out the scoring.
NYC had won the initial meeting in Toronto by a 0-2 scoreline.
Heading into the match, there are two non-long term injuries on the most recent report that Kreis will have to consider. Andoni Iraola is dealing with a muscle strain, while worryingly, David Villa is questionable with a hamstring issue. He was fit enough to play on the weekend, so, assuming no further development, he will likely be good to go.
They have a few longer-term issues – George John and Tony Taylor – but both Calle and Khiry Shelton, the second-overall draft pick, were fit enough to be removed from the list.
As for the lineup prediction, well that is a difficult task. One that Kreis himself seems to be wrestling with at the moment.
The aforementioned best spell of the season came just as the club had worked out their best starting eleven and a reliable formation. Then came the additions of both Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, throwing off that hard-found balance, as their mere presence demands inclusion.
Getting their best players on the pitch at the same time is nigh impossible. Far too many central-minded midfielders to consider.
The projected lineup is as follows: Josh Saunders in goal; from right to left – RJ Allen, Shay Facey, Jason Hernandez, and Chris Wingert across the back-line; Andrew Jacobson and Andrea Pirlo sitting deep with Mix Diskerud, Kwadwo Poku, and Thomas McNamara further ahead; David Villa leading the line.
There are plenty of possible alterations.
Along the back, centre-back Jefferson Mena joined the club mid-season, but has looked a little shaky in his adaptation to MLS; no time for patience at the moment. Wingert is a defensive full-back, especially when compared to Angelino, who was fielded on the left-side of the midfield against Dallas. Either could get the start, but Wingert gets the projection at the narrow home pitch, to better control Toronto's attack.
Jacobson and Pirlo provide a neat balance, but Poku has been the story of their midfield this season, bursting on the scene as a forceful, driving midfielder – the type Frank Lampard used to be. Lampard has not been at his best, wrestling with injuries after joining the club late and enduring an English season before the move. It is hard to leave him out, but the quick turnaround is as good an excuse as any.
Then there are Ned Grabavoy and Mehdi Ballouchy, who have been used sparingly of late. Sebastian Velasquez' availability given recent events is unknown.
McNamara was rested in Dallas, while Diskerud only went the final half hour, so both should be rather fresh come game-time.
Up top Mullins has been excellent when given the chance, but it has been difficult to force him into the lineup. Expect to see him from the bench, if not given the start.
With kickoff less than hours away – apologies, has been a busy few weeks – this section will be necessarily brief.
Last edition spoke a lot about the threat of Villa. With fifteen goals, he accounts for a large chunk of City's goal-threat. But since the addition of Pirlo, a new means of scoring will be an additional concern for TFC.
Pirlo's vision and passing ability is legend, combine that with Villa's energetic, alert running, and the threat of the quick ball over the top that picks out the forward's movement is a serious weapon that City have already put to good use.
Pirlo, from deep in the midfield, laid a ball in between the DC defenders for Villa to chase, holding off the attention of both Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin to score what proved to be the winner against United:
For Toronto to guard against such risks, the best manner would be two-fold: don't give Pirlo the time on the ball to lift his head and then to both be aware and to track the movements of Villa. Simple enough, but easier said than done. Those two are greats because they will find moments to do damage, Toronto must be alert at all times to minimize the possibility of getting burner by quality.
Should Poku indeed get the start over Lampard, his ability to make charging runs up the middle of the pitch has been a revelation this season. Consider one of his goals against Columbus in their 2-2 draw.
A Pirlo ball up the middle is directed to Villa, lurking on the left as he is wont to do. Villa then lays a ball inside for Poku to latch onto, beating out the defenders before beating Steve Clark with a low drive:
His goal against DC was not dissimilar.
Here the impetus to defend will fall on the likes of Michael Bradley, Benoit Cheyrou, and Collen Warner, depending on who plays where. Do not let him build up that head of steam and be aware of both his role as a target and ability to interplay.
One last threat of note, there could be many more made, is the threat posed by the side from range. Villa, Pirlo, Diskerud, McNamara, and even Jacobson, not to mention Lampard, are all capable of hitting from distance if they are given time and space to aim for goal.
Against Columbus, it was Jacobson with the bomb that squeezed past Clark:
Against Montreal, it was McNamara who found space moving in from the left. Again, to prevent this Toronto will need to be quick to step up to the ball. It will fall on team defending and good defensive tracking from the midfield to limit such chances.
On the other side of the ball, the most noteworthy, over-arching vulnerability is a tendency to get caught flat-footed on the back-line.
That can manifest in various manners, but consider Lletget's goal from the LA rout. Steven Gerrard bears down on goal, feeding a ball down the right for Gyasi Zardes. City focuses in that direction, completely forgetting about Gerrard, who receives a return ball at the top of the box and puts a low ball towards goal, where a completely unchallenged Lletget is able to get a touch, redirecting into the goal:
No defender likes to be turned, facing their own goal, but New York has shown a propensity to fall to pieces on such occasions, slow to turn and even worse once they have.
That, combined with poor defensive tracking from the midfield, lends itself to them being outnumbered and extremely vulnerable. But even when they have the numbers, they can be easily worked through, as Cedrick's goal for Columbus showed.
Bradley, Delgado, and Jonathan Osorio will be expected to provide those extra late runs; if they do so, goals lay ahead.
A result of that, is that when they are caught in possession, already on the back-foot and out of shape, they will hesitate, such as that which led to Meram's late winner (clip not available, goal at the end of this highlight pack).
That same lack of confidence one-on-one played a role in Akindele's goal from this past weekend, Hernandez easily blown past down the line.
Giovinco will devour a defense that stands off, perhaps more-so than one who steps to him.
Combine all of those weaknesses with a deft, poked through-ball, and the City back-line can appear non-existent. The duo of Keane and dos Santos took turns setting each other up and abusing the lack of pace on the City back-line to devastating effect:
Here is his repayment to dos Santos for good measure.
Toronto has plenty of potential runners and the ability to pick such passes. The tiny pitch will limited such chances, as compared to the spacious greens of LA's home, but the possiblity remains.
One final note: whenever a defensive unit relies on a zealous focus and tenacity to play the game, there is the risk that that over intensity will falter at key moments. Keeping up that level of alertness through ninety minutes is nearly impossible. City were packing their defense against the Galaxy, nearly all but Villa inside the box, but a cheap free-kick and a quick restart caught them napping, allowing Zardes to head in for a goal that was far too easily conceded:
Toronto can catch them with their pants down.
This is the third and final meeting between the two clubs this regular season. City has gone unbeaten through both, scoring six goals in the process.
Toronto has never lost at City's home ground; should be a cracker, enjoy.