TORONTO – One last match before the maelstrom ensues.
Regular actions continues for Toronto FC this weekend as they welcome the Portland Timbers to BMO Field on Saturday afternoon.
The match will conclude the second month of the MLS regular season, where TFC will have played seven matches, only establishing the rhythm of weekly clashes over the last five weeks. But with May comes a deluge, as the club is braced for seven more matches that month.
“We have the game here against Portland – a big home game – before we do our road trip to Orlando and Atlanta. Come back for Philadelphia and D.C. and then end in Salt Lake. We have an eye on it, know what is coming up,” said Justin Morrow midweek. “Those are tough stretches, where you can really make a big jump in the league, put some games together and earn some points that the other teams can't because they're not playing.”
Paying too much attention to the standings at this stage in the season is foolhardy. That said, TFC have two or three games in hand compared to their rivals at the top of the Eastern Conference. As Morrow pointed it, this is a chance to correct that imbalance create some separation.
Toronto will have to do so without Jozy Altidore, who left the 4-3 win over Minnesota United FC last Friday with a hamstring concern – Altidore will miss two-to-three weeks.
Greg Vanney would not tip his hand, but one of Jordan Hamilton, Ayo Akinola, or Terrence Boyd should be expected to step into Jozy's boots.
“Both [Jordan and Ayo], given their opportunities, are continuing to show that they are making progress. Terrence has been better in training over the last couple of weeks, so at some point we're going to see what he is going to bring to our team this season,” laid out the TFC Coach. “We have options; see who looks sharp, who looks ready. Jordan has put himself up there with his entrance last week.”
Though a massive absence, it is unlikely the goals will dry up for TFC.
“Offence has never been a big problem for us,” said Jonathan Osorio. “In the last game, Jordan came in, scored two goals. We have guys that are ready to contribute. It's a big loss, Jozy is an important player, but we're confident the next man up can fill in.”
Drew Moor, however, will be available, back from a short spell on the sidelines.
Lining up opposite this weekend will be Portland, who will be playing an eighth-straight road match to start their season with Providence Park undergoing renovations. They have four more road games after the visit to Toronto before their home opener on June 1 against LAFC. That is something TFC knows a bit about having done something similar in 2015 and 2016.
“We know a little about it,” reminded Morrow. “I'm sure they're anxious to get home, but they're trying to collect as many points as they can. They got a win last weekend that takes a little bit off of it, but they need points, so they'll be hungry coming in here. We have to be aware of that.”
Having drawn on opening day against the Colorado Rapids, the Timbers lost five straight matches before picking up their first win of the season last weekend, 3-1 against Columbus Crew SC.
“They've played better than their results suggest,” said Vanney. “It's not easy on the road, there is a certain amount resilience and execution you need to get results. When we scout, they probably should have scored more than they have. They've been in good positions, when you're on road if don't take chances it can be devastating in results.”
“They're a good team; good players,” continued Vanney. “[Diego] Valeri, another attacking midfielder, second forward-type who we've got to keep our eye on. They've got guys all over the field who are capable.”
With Giovanni Savarese in his second season at the helm, Vanney sees a continued evolution in the Timbers, who lost in the MLS Cup Final last season to Atlanta United FC.
“Last year the 3-5-2 was a big success, went on a run after [adopting that formation],” said Vanney. “They're a feisty, competitive team. Gio is a wonderful human being, but he's got an edge to him that is very passionate – not dirty, but hard-nosed, scrap for every inch.”
“They get that from [him] and his staff. We know them very well,” continued Vanney. “They have a good awareness of themselves, the qualities they have as a team. Gio is a very honest guy, I'm sure he's very honest with them about their strengths and weaknesses. He's carried on a bit of Caleb [Porter]'s original identity; added to [it]: they've become a more resilient team defensively, but still have a lot of quality in attack that can hurt you.”
Portland won the only meeting between the two last season by a 2-0 scoreline at home with Diego Chara and David Guzman providing the goals. In the nine encounters all-time, TFC has four wins to Portland's three with a pair of draws. Interestingly, the home team has won the last six matches and never lost in the series.
22-year-old American striker, Jeremy Ebobisse, who made his senior international debut in January, leads the side with three goals, while both Valeri and Sebastian Blanco have scored once and provided the service with four and three assists, respectively.
Vanney sees something familiar in Ebobisse.
“Left-footed, more of a runner, decent in the hold-up game, though it's not his main strength, he creates space for others because he is a willing runner. And he's got a nose for goal... it sounds like I'm talking about Jordan [Hamilton],” compared Vanney. “With opportunity and consistency, he's showing more comfort. Not an elite level forward in the league yet, but something he's building towards and he's got a very good player in Valeri around him.”
“If he makes the right runs in the right times between Valeri and a few others, they're going to get you the balls in the right places,” continued Vanney. “He benefits from the quality he has around him, but he's going to work, be relentless trying to create space and get in front of the goal. And he's got a knack for getting things on frame.”
Will Portland getting that first win out of the way be good or bad for TFC?
“I don't know,” weighed Vanney. “It takes a bit of the heat off. [They] have a formula that works, so they might be settled in. You would suspect they might do something similar, whereas if they lost again you don't know what they're going to do. We need focus on us: we're at home; have some things we need to clean up.”
A theme through these opening six matches has been the sheer number of goals scored: 29 times the ball has crossed the goal-line; nearly five per match.
“We've got to be smart defensively, better than we have in the last couple weeks,” stressed Vanney. “It's not that we've given away a ton of chances, it's that we've given away soft goals. That's got to stop. We can't keep digging ourselves out tough situations, that's not a formula for success long-term. We've got to be more solid and reliable defensively, and continue to create problems for teams.”
Vanney admitted a 1-0 win wouldn't be the worst, adding with a smile, “I'll take a 3-0 too.”