Sunday afternoon, NYC FC welcome Toronto FC to Yankee Stadium as two Eastern Conference foes with Playoff aspirations face off in Week 2 of the MLS season.
Toronto sucker-punched Red Bull in the opening week of the season with MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco grabbing a goal and an assist. The 2-0 victory was huge for the club as they start the season on the road for their first eight games. Last season, NYC FC got the best of Toronto in some cagey, high scoring affairs. This year, NYC FC will hope to slow down Toronto's formidable attack and keep the good times rolling against Toronto.
Waking the Red writer James Grossi joins us this week to answer our Toronto FC questions. James touches on all things Toronto, including what's up with Jozy, the club's defensive improvements, and who has Canadian supremacy in MLS.
Q: I can't help but remembering Jozy's first season in Toronto as a bit underwhelming given that he's still young and had plenty to prove after a disappointing run with Sunderland. That being said, I was shocked to see that he scored at a healthy rate in games he played in, scoring 13 in 25 games. How would you assess his first season back in MLS? Was his media coverage, which seemed often to be negative, too harsh? What should we expect from Jozy this season in Toronto given he will be more comfortable in year two of his MLS stint? Do you believe his best scoring days are behind him or that he could sill be among the leaders in MLS in goals scored?
A: Altidore's season was definitely overshadowed by the exploits of a certain other Designated Player (Sebastian Giovinco for those not paying attention). The aforementioned 13 goals was a decent haul for a player coming off a couple of troubled seasons; more is always appreciated however.
One aspect to keep in mind when assessing Altidore's 2015 is this remarkable addendum to his goal haul – those 13 came from only 18 shots on goal, and 37 in total. Compare that with Giovinco's 22 goals from 73 shots on goal, 181 total. That is some valuable chance conversion from Altidore. And leads to perhaps the most important factor to be considered: just how does a striker like Altidore make a good impression when a teammate is having the type of year that Giovinco did?
There was some deference from Altidore, who was hesitant to disrupt the flow of his strike partner. That deference was obvious at times, with Altidore unsure of whether to make the goal-scoring run, or simply pull defenders away. Add to that the hamstring injury suffered prior to the Gold Cup, one he never really got over, and the frustration of a young man adjusting to changed circumstances was evident.
Toronto FC and their strikers will have spent some time in the off-season planning out how the partnership will function. Expect to see Altidore in and around the area more this season.
Speaking about the Toronto coverage, Altidore has not been overly criticised – everyone was rather focused on Giovinco – but when he picked up that silly red card in New England for kicking out at Jose Goncalves, or when he saw another, while on the bench, later in the season amidst the stretch run, there was some groaning. Regarding some of the coverage of him from the US National Team angle, it's fair to say it was a little harsh – he is far from washed up, and short-term evaluations tend to overlook the ups and downs of reality – but equally, a lot is expected from players in Altidore's position.
2016 is a whole new year for Altidore, in more ways than one, and though it has not gotten off on the best of foots – another hamstring issue – it is expected that a more active Altidore will take to the pitch this season.
In preseason, Altidore looked leaner, hungrier. He revealed that he had made a few tweaks to his diet – mostly a reduction in carbs – and added some yoga-type exercises to his regiment. The intent was not to drop pounds, but to increase his flexibility and de-bulk – he had gotten a little too big in the weight room over the years of frustration. More importantly, he was ebullient and relaxed in front of the cameras.
Last season, Altidore was a little hard to read. He is well used to the glare, and handled it well, but there was an air of dissatisfaction; unstandable given the turbulence of his European ventures. He even admitted that he was going through some personal battles that were a cloud over him; one that has appeared to clear.
This season, thus far, Altidore has been rejuvenated, though it remains to be seen how that will translate to the game. If he can stay healthy, it is reasonable to expect him to better that mark of 13 goals from last season; if he and Giovinco can get on the same page, they have the makings of a strike partnership the likes of which this league has never seen.
As to whether he is finished, which is a crazy notion, it should be noted that last season was his highest ever goal haul in MLS, and that, despite starting much earlier than some, he is just about to enter the prime of his career. Patience will be rewarded.
Q: The BMO field construction project has put Toronto on the road for its first 8 games which is daunting to say the least. After a four game home stand and an away fixture at Red Bulls we're already in June, where it's likely that the USMNT will call up Bradley and Altidore, while Italy would give Giovinco a place on the Italian side for the UEFA Euro Cup. What is realistic to expect at the halfway point of the season after 17 games when 10 are on the road and the DPs are likely to be missing for at least 2 or 3 games depending on the runs their teams make? Given the high expectations coming in, do you think the fans will be patient if the club finds itself middle of the table through mid season?
A: It's very difficult to project through such a wonky start. The general aspiration through the road trip is to amass roughly a point per game – the full three on opening day is a good start in that direction – but what has been overlooked in the talk of eight-straight away is the degree of difficulty involved in this year's stretch. It began at the Supporters Shield champs, works it's way through the tiny pitch at Yankee Stadium, then heads to Kansas City – never a fun place to visit – and then Colorado – altitude is nobody's friend.
Then a series of tough Eastern foes, New England, DC, and Montreal - the cream of the crop and a hated rival – before closing with a visit to the MLS Cup champs in Portland. That is a tough gauntlet, by any measure.
And those first four home games are hardly gimmies either with Dallas, Vancouver, NYC FC, and Columbus, runners up last season, before the aforementioned return to New York.
Then come the call-ups and absences.
Setting a point target is a bit of a fool's errand, as would attempting to define the team, or their season, through such a distorted lens. What will be important is that the team stays within the mix in the Eastern Conference. The three-point system makes it very possible to make up ground in quick time, so as long as they are in the picture, a good run can make up for any early shortcomings.
The real rub of the situation is that is makes assessing the clubs moves, or the coaches influence, almost impossible. The first half of the season is a virtual write-off as far as gaining any real feel for whether they have done well or not – unless of course they continue the good start and contend, despite the disadvantage.
The opposite side of that coin is that having gotten so many road matches out of the way, 12 of their final 19 games will be at home, and, though points early count as much as those late, MLS is a league that gets going come the summer. July and August will be crucial, then five of the last six matches will be at BMO Field, hopefully with a playoff position on the line.
Toronto fans can be both patient and impatient. It has been a long nine seasons, and they are eager for success. If the club struggles, there will be concern. But there is a general understanding that the stadium enforced road-situation must be considered.
A lot of their inclination will be determined by how the team fares on their travels, not in terms of results, but in those of performance. If the team battles, if they represent with pride and effort, much will be foregiven. Take that gutsy, if oft ugly, win against the Red Bulls. Some of their harshest critics were effusive in their praise of that proverbial smash-and-grab. Determination and planning will be rewarded by the fans, if not in the results.
Mid-season standings do not a season make. As long as they are there or thereabouts come the important bits of the schedule, and looking like a team that can make amends for any set-backs, fans will be fine with TFC not leading the conference come the midway point.
Q: I'm glad you brought up our defense because it gives me a chance to bring up yours. We both equally stunk and used the off-season to fix what was badly, badly broken. What have you seen in the preseason and in your first victory that makes you optimistic about the defense improving? Which incoming player or players do you identify as being crucial to your defense's success this season?
A: To be honest, pre-season was a bit concerning – Toronto was still conceding some garbage goals, the kind that are back-breakers when points are on the line. A simple mistake would be capitalized upon by the opponent; those goals that see everyone's head drop.
But that all changed in New York against the Red Bulls.
The TFC back-line bent, it was under-pressure, but it did not break. That alone is worth celebrating. And that it was such a professional, no-nonsense performane has earned a lot of praise in these parts.
Toronto's defense was an issue in 2015, there is no denying that, but what the club did in the off-season checked every box one could have imagined.
Need a proven MLS centre-back? Sign Drew Moor as a free-agent after years at Colorado and Dallas.
Need a quality, defense first right-back? Attract Steven Beitashour from Vancouver.
A first-choice starting keeper? Acquire Clint Irwin, again from Colorado, a keeper who has both proven himself in this league and is just entering the meat of his career.
Toughen up the midfield, give Michael Bradley a partner to work with, and bring in winning MLS experience? Bring in Will Johnson from Portland, a two-time MLS Cup champion, and a childhood friend of Bradley's.
One cannot imagine a better off-season to solve the problems that plagued TFC last year.
There has long been a problem of leadership on the back-line. In many ways, it was a function of the ever-revolving door of players that came through the side. There were occasional strong points – Darren O'Dea was solid, but too expensive; Steven Caldwell too was a rock – but in general, there has always been a frailty there. Not enough vocal leaders, too many ready to point fingers and shy away from responsibility when the games got tough.
This new iteration has none of that meakness.
Moor is a captain and a grizzled vet in his own right; his stability and confidence will make the occasionally erratic Damien Perquis better – the two have the makings of a durable and varied partnership.
Both Beitashour and Justin Morrow are veterans in their own right, each can get up the field and manage their defensive duties in turn – the two were also teammates in San Jose in the past, so will have that see-saw bond that one desires from a pair of full-backs.
And Johnson, well he's as tenacious and hard-working as they come – nobody enjoys playing against Will – those sorts of players keep a team in games.
But it is the calming presence of Irwin that may prove to be the most crucial of the lot.
It has been pointed out that the turning point against the Red Bulls came in the 65th minute when Dax McCarty nearly played in Bradley Wright-Phillips. TFC were caught flat-footed, but Irwin came up huge, forcing the attacker wide, staying big without fouling, and Mike Grella wasted the half-chance that came, finding only the outside netting.
It would have been easy to concede, heads drop, concede a few more, and collect the loss, but the unflappability of Irwin gave his team a chance, one they took 15 minutes later.
Having that rock in the back allows confidence to emmanate outward, through the back-line, into the midfield, and beyond.
Consider this statistic from last season: when Toronto held opponents to less than 2 goals, they were unbeaten in 16 matches (14 wins and 2 draws). When they conceded 2 or more, they won just once with 2 draws through 18 matches.
If they can keep that split-ledger leaning towards the good, they will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
BONUS BARBED QUESTION: It took 9 years, but Toronto finally made it to the playoffs. Congratulations. It can be hard to advance to the postseason when so few teams make it. Unfortunately you were trounced by Montreal 3-0 in that first game. Do you think you'll get the better of your big brothers from Montreal when you face each other this season?
A: We appreciate the congratulations, though suspect it may be a condescending one. May the soccer gods not bless you with that same nine year affliction.
Ah, yes. That series of back-to-back matches in Montreal was a dark period. The club lost the final regular season match to the Impact, thereby dropping down into that away play-in spot, and then froze days later, like a deer in the headlights, against a Didier Drogba-fueled side in the playoffs.
NYC FC would not understand that angst. Regrettably, one must experience the playoffs to appreciate the bitterness of a such a defeat. Though the repeated losses to the Red Bulls – outscored 7-2 through three defeats, not to mention dropping out of the US Open Cup on penalties to the Cosmos (Ouch!) – last season must have given an inkling.
As to Montreal, the so-called big brothers, this season should be very interesting. The two clubs will meet five times – thrice in the league and two more in the Voyageurs Cup (set to kick off in June – be sure to tune in, those games can be very entertaining) – and no doubt, this Toronto side will be very eager to make amends for the humiliation of last season.
Aside from the star-studded nature of the game – Drogba, Giovinco, Piatti, Altidore, Bradley, et al. – it is difficult to relay how much these games mean to the two cities, both fans and players alike. Fractious, combative, ill-tempered, and action packed. It should be considered amongst the top derbies in the league, though few pay it that heed.
Form goes out the window when the two meet, as the saying goes, so it remains to be seen who will take the upper hand. Set a reminder for the first meeting on April 23rd – it may prove a preview of the Eastern Conference Final
Have a prediction for the game or thoughts on how it might play out? Let us know in the comments section!