The mantra is, “you’re as good as your record says you are”, but certainly there are exceptions to every rule, no? Does anyone really believe defending MLS Cup champions Toronto FC are one of the worst teams in MLS? Are there folks who really think the current Canadian champs and owners of the Supporters Shield won’t finish top 3 or 4 in the Eastern Conference? Didn’t think so.
Breaking Down Toronto FC (2-5-1, 7 pts, -5)
Current Form L-W-D-L-L
While MLS squads have played anywhere from seven to eleven matches so far this season, Toronto FC has already engaged in sixteen competitive fixtures since late February. As expected, the Reds and manager Greg Vanney put all their eggs in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) basket — much the same way FC Dallas did last year — in the hopes of bringing MLS their first-ever regional hardware. And while the club went 4-2-2 in their run — defeating Liga MX powers Tigres and Club America along the way — they fell painfully short to Chivas Guadalajara in a finals penalty-kick shootout. In the aftermath sits a neglected start to the 2018 MLS season which finds Toronto FC looking up in the table at every single Eastern Conference club save one (DC United). They’re fifteen points behind first-place Atlanta United, but only seven from a playoff spot.
Now, reality sets in as the CCL hangover gradually disappears, and defense of their trophy becomes Toronto FC’s singular focus. The CCL pain, however, was more than emotional, as the grueling travel requirements and match congestion rendered a physical toll on Toronto. Injuries piled up, testing Vanney’s squad depth as never before. There was even a recent MLS match where the Reds dressed only sixteen players.
Remarkably, 100 percent of last year’s back line is either departed or injured. Iranian international right-back Stephen Beitashour was signed by expansion side LAFC in the offseason. Former PSG right-back Gregory van der Wiel was acquired as his replacement, but injuries to both MLS Cup final centerbacks — Drew Moor and Chris Mavinga — and top substitutes — Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund — have pushed the Dutchman over to central defense so far in 2018. He has paired recently with Toronto FC mainstay and usual holding midfielder Michael Bradley. The US international and World Cup veteran, who scored one of the most famous goals in US history vs Mexico at Azteca last year, remains the Reds’ captain. In van der Wiel’s stead, Sao Paulo loanee Auro has slotted in at right-back for the past three matches. First-choice left back Justin Morrow also remains sidelined with a calf strain, and he’s been replaced by Toronto FC’s longest-tenured player and first-ever Homegrown, Ashtone Morgan. Fourth-year goalkeeper Alex Bono is coming off a 10-shutout season in 2017, easily his best as a pro.
Vanney has rolled out a 4-1-4-1 (and at times a 4-2-3-1) in each of the past three, post-CCL MLS matches. Former Chivas USA midfielder Marky Delgado — now in his fourth season in red — has held down Bradley’s number six spot for several matches. Canadian Jay Chapman and Liechtenstein international right-back Nicolas Hasler have shared duty on the right side of the midfield, while veteran Jonathan Osorio has made the left side his own. Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe, who can both create and finish, has taken Delgado’s former spot on the right side of the attack. The straw that stirs the drink, though, is second-year playmaker Victor Vasquez, who contributed sixteen assists in 2017, second-most in MLS. The Barcelona youth product already has two goals and two assists in just four matches this season.
Toronto utilized a two forward setup to perfection in 2017, producing an incredible 74 goals on the year — the second-most all-time in MLS. Italian international Sebastian Giovinco and US star Jozy Altidore combined for 31 of those tallies. However, a CCL hamstring injury to Altidore followed by surgery to remove bone spurs has sidelined the US international for several weeks. In Jozy’s absence, Vanney has used Giovinco as a number nine, not a preferred posture for Seba. He’s only scored one goal this season, but he’s assisted on four others. It remains to be seen if Vanney tweaks his formation to get his leading goal-producer in the blended creating/finishing role to which he’s more accustomed.
Breaking Down New England (4-3-2, 14 pts, +3)
Current Form: L-W-D-L-W
Even though Lee Nguyen was an insignificant part of the Revolution squad in 2018, New England showed poorly in their first match without him, a 4-2 drubbing at Montreal. The lone bright spot for the Revs was a late brace submitted by defensive midfielder Wilfried Zahibo, one score of which was up for MLS Goal of the Week. Whether this performance was a one-off for New England will soon be known.
First-year manager Brad Friedel employed a previously-used 4-4-1-1 formation, positioning his number ten Diego Fagundez just underneath center forward Teal Bunbury. The midfield (Cristian Penilla-Luis Caicedo-Wilfried Zahibo-Juan Agudelo) and backline/keeper (Gabriel Somi-Claude Dielna-Jalil Anibaba-Andrew Farrell/Matt Turner) went unchanged from the past several matches. Agudelo was subbed out early (Kristzian Nemeth) due to an injury which may keep him on the shelf for a few weeks. Brandon Bye and Kelyn Rowe — newly returned from his own injury — made cameos, as well.
While the attack generated more shots, shots on target, and corners for New England, the Revolution defense was victimized by the wizardry of Ignacio “Nacho” Piatti, who was responsible for all four Montreal goals. In particular, Somi and the left side of the defense were beaten on several occasions. The Impact were generally not troubled by the Revolution press, as they went over and around it with their 4-3-3. Montreal forced a few turnovers themselves, which led to good scoring chances and a couple of goals.
A shaky Revs’ defense was finally exposed by a team that was able to string passes together and beat the high press. Despite their injuries, Toronto FC certainly has the weapons to do the same. Building from the back, Bradley completed 91 percent of his passes recently vs. Philadelphia, while Aketxe was successful on 89 percent of his balls through the middle third. And we know how lethal Giovinco can be with the ball at his feet, the dynamic playmaking of Vasquez notwithstanding. New England will likely need a buttoned-down defensive outing like we saw against Sporting KC to emerge with a result vs the defending champs.
This match represents Toronto FC’s third in a period of nine days. Manager Greg Vanney will probably not field a first-choice lineup, especially with their next match occurring in just six days. Considering all that the Reds have been through since they hoisted a trophy in early December, New England is facing a top-tier team not nearly firing on all cylinders. If they can solve their defensive issues, limit turnovers, and continue generating quality chances, the Revolution can potentially grab full points from a Toronto FC side missing several key players and coming off a midweek fixture.
Toronto FC hasn’t yet rounded into form, but it seems to be only a matter of time now with the CCL in their rearview mirror. As emotional and physical wounds heal, most observers expect the Reds to regain their status as one of MLS’ elite teams.
This is the 28th all-time meeting between these Eastern Conference rivals. New England holds a 12-6-9 edge, including 9-2-4 at Gillette. The Revolution won two of three in 2017, both at home. Toronto FC hasn't won in Foxborough since 2013. TFC’s last result at Gillette was a 1-1 draw in 2016.
This match is the first of two between these clubs in 2018. The Revs make the return trip to Ontario in late September.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 12
Venue: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston); TSN (Toronto)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); Sportsnet 590 The FAN (Toronto)