The New England Revolution begin a three-match week against Toronto FC on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. Toronto enters with a poor-looking 3-5-0 record, and yet they remain in a playoff spot in the East, and feature one of the most dangerous trios in MLS in Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco.
We caught up with James Grossi from Waking the Red, SB Nation's Toronto FC blog, to get an idea of what's going on in the Great White North.
TBM: From the looks of things, management in Toronto went out and addressed a lot of needs in the offseason, bringing in unprecedented levels of firepower in Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco to pair up with as good a spine as you'll ever see in MLS, i.e. Michael Bradley. But maybe they forgot defense was a part of the game? What's the major issue with TFC's back line and defending, and is there a light at the end of the tunnel before the summer transfer window?
JG: Yes, the firepower brought into the club is impressive, and yes, they may have overlooked the back-line a little, but really the current frailty has been born largely due to injuries.
Spending so much of the salary cap on three players, not to mention the likes of Robbie Findley and Benoit Cheyrou, who cannot be on small sums, leaves little to address the need for depth across the back. They are short at centre-back, with just four potential starters, only two (maybe three at a push) of whom are really starting quality, and the right-back cupboard is particularly bare, prompting the club to try to wedge in players, namely Warren Creavalle, before swapping Justin Morrow from the left to the right in order to plug that gap.
Mark Bloom, the right-back who served well for much of last season has yet to make his season debut - word is he is approaching full fitness - and Steven Caldwell, the club's former captain, and a vocal leader at the back, have been sorely missed. The impact of those two absences exposes that lack of depth, but has also meant that Toronto has been unable to field a consistent back-four, which is toxic to a side trying to coalesce into a solid unit. Damien Perquis, the French-born, Polish defender acquired in the off-season has looked decent, barring a few mistakes, but his adaptation to MLS would be easier with solid and consistent partners alongside.
As far as a potential fix, the easiest temporary solution will be to get players healthy and build that familiarity needed to mount a better challenge to the opposition attacks. Alternatively, there is some room for considering the structure of the base of the midfield, perhaps playing a more defensive-minded midfielder in front of the back-four, or utilizing a three-man shield there to ensure better coverage - Greg Vanney has trotted out a formation that functioned a little as such, to moderate success, so it is an option.
Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta are the only other two centre-backs on the roster after the departure of Doneil Henry, either or both of them stepping up, declaring their ability to contend for a starting position would help with the depth issue once Caldwell is fit. And depending on how his progression continues, Clement Simonin, the off-the-board defender TFC selected ninth overall in the draft, who is currently plying his trade down in USL with TFC II could make his way up to the first team. He showed rather well in an emergency run out against Salt Lake.
TBM: The acquisition of Benoit Cheyrou went sort of under-the-radar this offseason, but it looks as though he's morphing into a very important cog in the midfield for TFC. Talk a little about the role he plays with the Reds and how he will look to influence the game on Saturday.
JG: Cheyrou is quickly becoming the thinking-fans' favourite player. Altidore and Giovinco get all the headlines, but the acquisition of the savvy French midfielder could prove to be the masterstroke. Players of his experience and talent do not always find their way to MLS, and as mentioned, it was so off-the-radar as to be a real treat to fans who care about what happens beyond the DP tag.
Principally, what Cheyrou provides is an intelligent foil for Michael Bradley, somebody who thinks the game at the same level as the new captain does. With the two of them operating at their potential in the centre of the midfield, Toronto could have one of the best central partnerships in the league - alas, it has not yet fully come to fruition. For most, the problem has been Bradley, who is still unsure of his role with the team, often trying to do too much, but some have suggested that perhaps Cheyrou is not the one to get the best out of Bradley, who may require a more active, defensive-minded partner, to really take over matches as desired.
Regardless of which side one falls on, Cheyrou brings a calmness on the ball and a reading of the game that is invaluable in MLS midfields. He knows what he wants to do before the ball is on his foot, and he knows just when to release the pass or make the run to great effect. That sort of automatic trigger in the middle, should Toronto ever get the rest of the team to click on the same level, can be very useful.
There are two plays in particular worth pointing at. The first came on opening day in Vancouver, Cheyrou collected a ball near the centre-line and knew he was going to lay it out wide for the left-back. But instead of rushing the play, he simply waited, got Vancouver thinking by surveying the rest of the field, and as soon as Morrow was ready, slid him the pass, leading to Findley's eventual game-winning goal.
The second was Cheyrou's goal against Chicago, gracefully arriving late at the penalty spot to place an effort from a Giovinco pull-back confidently into the net - most players would have snatched at that chance, but he took it with such precision.
For Toronto to succeed this season, they will need secondary and tertiary scoring; through seven matches, he has a goal and three assists. Whether his 33-year old legs can last a long, difficult MLS season, remains to be seen.
Entertainingly, he also has a bit of that Gallic flair which every baying crowd can appreciate - his preseason run that saw two Costa Rican defenders collide before picking out Altidore with a cross, who in turn set up Giovinco for a goal, was a thing of beauty.
TBM: Losing out to Montreal in the Canadian Championship has to hurt. How do you think the team will handle the quick turnaround and travel to Foxboro, especially after opening up with that brutal road stand in March and April?
JG: The defeat to Montreal does indeed sting - one never likes to go out of a competition, especially at the hands of one's closest rival, but in truth the club probably does not mind that much. They made the decision to rest Altidore and Giovinco, amongst others, for the home opener (that turned out well) in the first leg, gifting Montreal a one-goal advantage in the series.
Players always want to win, but for the club the MLS playoffs is the goal, almost to the detriment of any other potential reward along the way. Such a singular focus can be good, but comes with its own pitfalls.
Given how intermittent their start to the season was - just six matches through the first two months - it is unclear how a busy month of May, with Saturday being their fifth game in two weeks, will affect the side. Are they fresh enough to withstand the scheduling crunch? Or are they still finding their groove after a stop-start beginning - two bye-weeks were not very useful at that time of year, despite the long road-stretch.
Having rested players for the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup, they fell flat on Sunday in the home opener against Houston. But then the starting lineup played on short rest for the second leg and fared much better, winning the match but losing the series. Seeing how they have an entire week before their next match, one suspects that the first team will again be ready to go on Saturday. And though the loss and short rest may require a change or two, or see the legs run out of gas, they will no doubt be eager to make amends for the disappointment.
A lot has been made of the long road-trip that opened the season, but the more consequential concern has to be the lack of action from week to week. As players build into match fitness from pre-season onwards, having that regular game, once a week, helps to develop both fitness and cohesion. The awkward start, with long stretches off, never mind the travel, may have stunted the side's development, which, along with the injuries and lack of depth, could account for the inconsistency.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
JG: Projected Starting Lineup: Chris Konopka in goal; from right to left - Justin Morrow, Nick Hagglund, Damien Perquis, and Ashtone Morgan across the back; Jackson, Michael Bradley, Benoit Cheyrou, and Jonathan Osorio through the midfield; Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco up top.
Only one minor change to the recently preferred eleven with Osorio coming on for Findley. If Bloom is indeed ready to go, he could come on for Morrow, who would then swap over the left in place of Morgan, but there is no reason to rush a player back into the starting lineup before he gets his game-legs under himself. Konopka has done well in his time between the posts, but if Joe Bendik is fit, Vanney may opt to put him number one back in.
Score-line, eh? Normally, rather than tempt fate, it is wise to be rather conservative in prediction, especially wherever TFC is involved. But fate be damned, a bold 2-2 sounds good. Plenty of attacking talents on the pitch, should be fun.
If a more realistic result is preferred, 3-0 New England with at least one TFC player injured on that horrendous surface. It has been hard to get a grasp on what this team is capable of providing.