Finally, that empty pit deep in your stomach can be filled once again as your beloved Hoops are back in MLS action. After a few weeks off from league play, FC Dallas will play host to Toronto FC. Toronto comes in on a seven match winless streak, with four losses and three draws. They are in 7th place in the Eastern Conference with 19 points on the season. Dallas is still 5th place in the Western Conference with 22 points, two behind Houston, but only one point ahead of Minnesota.
If you somehow haven’t had your fill of soccer over the past few weeks, get ready for MLS action to return. Between the Women’s World Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup, and US Open Cup – soccer has been on tv almost every moment of every day for two weeks. And it’s been glorious! With the return of MLS this weekend we get to see our favorite teams stretched thin as international tournaments keep fan favorites away. Although Dallas has been dealing with this for almost two months now due to the U20 World Cup, most other teams are just starting to deal with the pressure. Dallas will be without midfield bulwarks Carlos Gruezo and Bryan Acosta and Reggie Cannon in the back this week, while Toronto will try to fill the shoes of Michael Bradly, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, Ashtone Morgan and Noble Okello.
It’s been another up and down season for the Canadians this year. After an all-time great team in 2017 won the domestic treble (Canadian Championship, Supporter’s Shield, MLS Cup), Toronto went into 2018 with high expectations - to win the CONCACAF Champions League while remaining an MLS power. But just like every other team before them, Toronto crashed out of the CCL (well, lost the final) and never recovered in league play, suffering the indignity of failing to even reach the playoffs the year after winning it all. And while it was mostly all down for Toronto last year, the dualities of the team rolled into the offseason and are now threatening once again to bring them down. During the offseason, a strange standoff between the front office and Sebastian Giovinco over a new contract saw the MLS superstar leave for the…”ahem”…greener pastures of Saudi Arabia. Then Jozy Altidore came out swinging at the front office about after they let a certain trainer go (foreshadowing) before a meeting calmed the nerves. Now, after a quick start and winning five of their first eight games, Toronto’s seven match winless streak is threatening the team’s fortunes once again.
So, what’s caused the trouble for Toronto this season? You mean, besides not having a short, Italian magician, who was a perennial MVP candidate and best player on the team, running the show? Funny you should ask. It all starts with the missing pieces. You see, Giovinco wasn’t the only key player who departed this offseason. Victor Vasquez, the missing piece from previous seasons, who helped put Toronto over the top, left for greener pastures as well. Two top tier MLS creators off the team in the same off season. Also missing for a stretch of games was striker Jozy Altidore, and his trainer, who went down due to injury, to the surprise of no one. Altidore had five goals in his first four games before going down and hasn’t scored since returning.
Now, we can’t lay everything at the feet of these three players, so let’s have a look at who else Toronto has been running out. Losing Gio and Vasquez meant Toronto would need someone special to replace them. It appears they may have found their man in Alejandro Pozuelo from Spain. The crafty no. 10 was brought in after MLS week one and made an immediate impact with four goals and Five assists. In the subsequent nine games however, he has contributed just one more goal and three assists. Between his five goals and Altidore’s five goals, nine of them were within the first five games of the season. Explains the start, right?
It should be noted I’m not fully confident in the formation Toronto will use or who will be filling in at some of these holes. Coach Greg Vanney has really mixed up his formations lately while juggling missing personnel. Dallas will most likely be seeing Jordan Hamilton start up top. He has four goals on the season, but only one in the past nine games. The midfield should see Markey Delgado in his usual central mid spot. But instead of Michael Bradly, look for Liam Fraser to fill in as the deepest midfielder. Midfielder Nick DeLeon has contributed three goals and three assists, having netted one goal in each of the last two games. Fortunately, left wing regular Osario and his three goals, four assists totals will still be with Canada at the Gold Cup. Look for Justin Morrow or Richie Laryea (or both) to be deployed as wing backs if the formation above holds. Morrow has popped up with three assists and Laryea as a single goal on the season. The back line will be anchored by Dallas native Drew Moor, former LA Galaxy defender Laurent Ciman and Eriq Zavaleta. Big signing Omar Gonzalez (also a Dallas native) will not arrive until after the July 7th transfer window opens. Keeper Quintin Westberg appears to have supplanted Alex Bono as the starter for now, but it hasn’t been pretty with either this season, regardless.
Just like guessing the formation and personnel, it’s difficult to say much about any tactics Toronto might employ with so many regulars out the squad. Bradly is the metronome that moves and steadies Toronto and without him, the key figure will be Pozuelo. Of course, he’s been terrific, and Dallas will need to mark him closely all game, but it helps that Toronto will have so few attacking options surrounding him. If they lineup in the 5-3-2 formation, I imagine a sit and counter approach will be taken as they force the young Dallas midfield to try and break them down. Not a bad plan, but it’s playing for a draw more than a win. Dallas will have to work on containing the wings when they turn possession over. Although Dallas could match their formation and look to be conservative with three in the back, I hope Coach Gonzalez throws a 4-3-3 formation at them to single up our attackers with their back three.
Key Matchup: Edwin Cerrillo vs Alejandro Pozuelo
You’ve heard of the basketball tactic “box and one” right? Basically, the defense plays a quasi-zone while having on defender follow an opposing player around man-to-man. Recently it was brought to the collective front of mind by the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals. Well, it might not be such a bad idea to borrow that little nugget and deploy Cerrillo as the “and one” man-marker for Pozuelo. Teams have been nullifying him the past few weeks by essentially isolating him from the rest of the Toronto starters, knowing he’s the most dangerous player on the field, and Toronto’s only real attacking option. Dallas should do the same.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Dallas’ Young Midfield – If you paid any attention to the US Open Cup games these last two weeks, you will have noticed that Luchi handed the reigns over to our young homegrowns to let them struggle with breaking through some veteran USL squads. While that didn’t work out well last game, it could pay dividends later in the season. For now, though, he doesn’t have much choice. But with the return of Paxton Pomykal and Edwin Cerrillo, to join Jesus Ferreira, at least the starters all have solid MLS experience under their belts. Let’s see what they’ve learned.
2. Ferreira’s Evolution – Another trend that manifested itself in the US Open Cup games has been Luchi moving Ferreira down to the no. 10 spot. He had been moving him late in MLS games to get another striker on the field, but the last two weeks have seen him start the game there. This allows Luchi to keep Dom Badji as a striker instead of putting him out on the wing. It also means we have a more attack minded center mid to help break through deep lying sides - say, a northern team, on the road, in the blazing Texas heat, with a thin bench?
3. Defensive Adjustments – Dallas has also been having trouble on the defensive side of the ball, with lapses in judgement and key errors ruining several results the past few weeks. They also haven’t logged a clean sheet since April. Both those things should be rectified against this depleted Toronto team. If not, I don’t know how we won’t see changes during the summer transfer window to the back line.
Ok, with both teams shaking the rust off from a somewhat extended layoff, not much will be expected from either side. While Dallas has played 2 games the last two weeks, it hasn’t been all regulars nor even first teamers. Toronto has had time off and is missing people all over the field. And again, road teams in general, have succeeded if they get a draw on the road, much less a win. And teams traveling to Texas in the summer are lucky to live to play another game. With that in mind, it’s tough to predict a great result with how our offense has played of late. Not without the help of Own Goal anyways. I think Dallas can eke out a 1-0 win, but hopefully the Texas summer can heat things up a bit.