Eighty-one days removed from the December 10 final, Toronto FC are set to kick off a new MLS season on Saturday. Though the playoff hangover may not yet have worn off, the pressure is on again for this team to pick up where they left off.
TFC have lofty aspirations for this season, but work toward any goal starts here. The side Greg Vanney has at his disposal this weekend is almost identical to the one that knocked New York City and the Montreal Impact out of the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake are no slouch of a first hurdle, though.
Last year, they squeaked into the playoffs sixth in the Western Conference, and were promptly shown the door by the LA Galaxy. Much of that team’s old guard has skipped town, though, with all-time assists leader Javier Morales moving to FC Dallas, and Juan Manuel Martinez returning home to Argentina.
General manager Craig Waibel has rejuvenated a sluggish team with young, fast players with the aim of tearing apart back lines on the counterattack. RSL’s big signing this year is 22-year-old Slovakia international Albert Rusnak, who is expected to replace Morales as the No. 10 in midfield.
Joining Rusnak is a speedy attacking trio of Jordan Allen, Yura Movsisyan and former Reds draft pick Joao Plata. Together, they comprise an offence that could certainly ask questions of Drew Moor and the TFC rearguard on Saturday.
Real Salt Lake actually have a few Toronto alumni, with Aaron Maund, Luis Silva and Chad Barrett all likely to be in the squad named by coach Jeff Cassar.
The defence is a little spotty on RSL’s end, without much in the way of top-quality players. Youngster Justen Glad had a breakout season last year and has the potential to be an elite centre-back in MLS but will not play on Saturday, and beyond him the pickings are fairly slim.
All in all, RSL figure to be a challenge for TFC. They’re likely to play a similar trap-and-counter style to Montreal, which certainly caused the Reds problems in the playoffs last year.
Vanney’s favoured 3-5-2 formation should be well-equipped to handle the Salt Lake counter, especially since it’s unlikely to be quite as fast as that led by Dominic Oduro and Ignacio Piatti in Montreal. Toronto have plenty of experience now against this type of play, although they never quite managed to snuff it out completely against the Impact.
The Reds are heading into a venue that has not been kind to them historically - they have an all-time record of 1-7-0 in Salt Lake and their only win came back in 2007. They did come out on top in the meeting between these sides last year, though, thanks to a solitary Tosaint Ricketts goal at BMO Field.
New defender Chris Mavinga has been ruled out after returning to France for the birth of his child, so it seems a near-certainty that we’ll see the exact same lineup that started the MLS Cup final. Victor Vazquez hasn’t yet reached full fitness, but could come on late. All signs point to him being slowed eased into the starting XI as Armando Cooper was last year.
The hosts will be without Glad as well as Danny Acosta, Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon, all of whom are in the American squad for the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. RSL’s captain, Kyle Beckerman, missed most of preseason due to injury problems but is expected to battle through the opener.
As I said in our roundtable, there’s no excuse for TFC not to win this game. RSL are a good team, but you have to beat good teams to become an elite one. This is where we see if they can transition from one season to the next without missing a beat.
Projected starting XI:
Real Salt Lake: Rimando; Beltran, Maund, Schuler, Phillips; Beckerman, Sunny; Allen, Rusnak, Plata; Movsisyan.