ST.JOHN’S, Canada— It’s been over four months since Toronto FC last played an MLS match, defeating NYCFC 1-0 at home way back on March 7.
Three flight attempts, two slices of pumpernickel, and a postponed kickoff later and TFC are finally set to face off against D.C. United this Sunday in Orlando to open their ‘MLS is Back’ account.
Yummm... #MLSisBack pic.twitter.com/nelyLH9YsW— Omar Gonzalez (@Omar4Gonzalez) June 30, 2020
While there’s certainly some skepticism surrounding the safety of the players and personnel during the tournament, it’s not all doom and gloom as the Reds return to action.
Captain Michael Bradley has taken the time during the long layoff to nurse the ankle injury that kept him out to start the season and is now fully fit and available for selection in Greg Vanney’s side.
Offseason DP signing Pablo Piatti is also healthy after a hamstring injury kept him out of the opening two TFC matches. Fitness has been the concern for Piatti since joining the club from La Liga outfit Espanyol. Even at age 31, if the Argentine is operating at anything near 100 per cent, he should be a huge boost to an already potent attack.
With plenty of options in midfield and on the flanks for Vanney to consider, the toughest decision might be choosing who will lead the line against D.C.
Thanks to a delayed return from Florida back to Toronto, Jozy Altidore is unlikely to appear in the Reds tournament opener according to Vanney, with a lack of training sessions and subsequent match fitness a concern.
With the kickoff delayed by a couple of days, it will be interesting to see how the schedule change impacts Altidore’s availability on Sunday.
To make matters worse, surprise rookie sensation and logical Altidore replacement Achara suffered a serious knee injury in training last week which required a surgery that leaves him sidelined for the remainder of 2020.
UPDATE | Ifunanyachi Achara undergoes successful surgery— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) July 9, 2020
In lieu of a natural center forward, TFC might fancy a false nine Alejandro Pozuelo to start things off in the Sunshine State, a tactic they rode throughout their playoff run all the way to the MLS Cup Final last fall.
For a more detailed breakdown of how the Reds shape up heading into the restart, check out our WTR refresher.
On the D.C. United side of things, the opponent comes in with their full squad present in Orlando, save for midfielder Paul Arriola who continues to rehab a significant knee injury.
Longtime Columbus Crew attacker and MLS veteran Federico Higuaín is set to make his debut for D.C. in the tournament with the 35-year-old Argentine fully recovered from an ACL injury.
Also joining Higuaín in Washington during the offseason was former Atlanta United man and 2018 MLS Cup winner Julian Gressel.
The German midfielder is a huge addition to the Black-and-Red attack and is a name the TFC faithful will recall from their 2019 playoff run, with Gressel opening the scoring for Atlanta before Toronto came back to win the Eastern Conference final 2-1 last October.
Bringing in Ola Kamara provided head coach Ben Olsen the third piece in a trio of intriguing new options alongside Higuaín and Gressel.
Kamara joins D.C. from Chinese side Shenzhen after spending the 2019 season overseas. The 30-year-old Norwegian does have plenty of past MLS success on his resume, scoring 48 goals in 90 league appearances in stints with both Columbus and the LA Galaxy.
The one knock against United this season could be the lack of youth within their attacking options. However, if the likes of Kamara and Higuaín are healthy, they have proven in the past they are quite capable of providing offense as they’ll likely be leaned on as a pivotal part of Olsen’s new-look squad.
To find the last time these two sides faced off, we have to throw it back to the opening round of last year’s playoffs where TFC hit D.C. for four extra-time strikes in a 5-1 thriller at BMO Field.
The final scoreline was ultimately a flattering one with the game ending in a 1-1 stalemate in regulation before Toronto caught fire during the additional thirty minutes.
Although neither team will field the same starting XI that squared off last October in Toronto, the Reds come in as the favourite to come out on top.
With just ninety minutes available for these two settle things on Sunday, expect TFC to come out aiming to find the back of the net early and often as they look to start their ‘MLS is Back’ campaign on the right foot.
- Both teams will have the option to use five substitutes in the match but are limited to three different opportunities to make those changes throughout the 90 minutes.
- A win or draw against D.C. would stretch TFC’s regular season unbeaten run to 13 matches.
- Were Eriq Zavaleta to feature for the Reds in the tournament, it would mark his 100th league appearance for the club.