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MLS Grab Bag, Week 9: #TorontoStrong but not quite strong enough

Friday 27th April 2018

Welcome to the 2018 season’s ninth edition of MLS Grab Bag. Each Friday we’ll review midweek news, preview key weekend matches, and explore other interesting developments.

Horseshoes and hand grenades

Wednesday was not a good night for Toronto sports fans.

Of course, it was far and away eclipsed by Monday afternoon, when a young man killed 10 pedestrians and injured 14 more by driving a rented van down the Yonge Street sidewalk. The officer who first confronted and arrested the man has drawn praise for his refusal to be goaded into using deadly force. The killer is being portrayed as a right-wing activist, but Toronto police are being deliberate in their search for a motive. Already, there are three different GoFundMe campaigns established to support the injured and family members of the deceased.

In the wake of the tragedy, four of Toronto’s five top-flight teams were in action. Only the Argonauts, the CFL gridiron team in its close season, were idle. Baseball’s Blue Jays played the first in their three-game series against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night, winning 4-3. They lost by the reverse score on Wednesday evening. The NBA Raptors were the only winning Toronto franchise on Wednesday, defeating the Washington Wizards to take a commanding 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

The NHL’s Maple Leafs and Toronto FC of MLS came out on the wrong end in much more critical games. Both teams were on the road for their matches. The Leafs were in Boston for the deciding game in their best-of-seven first round series with the Bruins. On Monday, they had levelled the series immediately after the tragedy. What should have been a celebratory moment was instead a sober one.

The Leafs then played a wide-open affair in Game Seven in Boston but were eliminated 7-4.

Toronto FC, meanwhile, were in Guadalajara to face Chivas in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final. The Goats had stolen the first leg with a 2-1 victory at BMO Field. The Reds needed at least two goals to have a chance at the title. They also needed their stars to step up.

To begin, it looked like it wouldn’t happen. Chivas' Orbelin Pineda was put through on 19 minutes, He moved across goal towards the far post then slotted the ball back when Alex Bono stretched to cut him off. The goal put the Goats up 3-1 on aggregate.

Six minutes later, Nicolas Hasler had his back to goal on the edge of the Chivas six-yard-box. He held possession, shifting back and forth until he finally dashed for the endline, cutting the ball back across goal just before he went out of touch. Jozy Altidore was waiting. The big striker put his shot between the legs of one defender and beyond the sliding tackle of another. It was 3-2 on aggregate.

TFC needed one more and only one of their two main stars had delivered. Just before the half, the other did his part. Sebastian Giovinco charged towards goal from the left side, cut inside to put the ball on his right foot, then launched a volley inside the near post before Rodolfo Cota could react. The tie was all square with away goals cancelled out.

Neither side could score in the second half. There was no extra time, only penalties. Chivas prevailed 4-2 when Reds captain Michael Bradley’s Panenka attempt cleared the bar.

On the one hand, Toronto was unable to break Liga MX’s grip on the CCL. On the other, penalties are essentially a lottery to decide the winner. TFC’s Jonathan Osorio won the tournament’s golden boot as top scorer. Giovinco won the Ballon d’Or as best player. MLS may not have surpassed their continental rivals but they have drawn level. That's a good start.

The Reds now have it Altidore in Major League Soccer. Manager Greg Vanney rested his best players chasing the Champions League trophy in vain. His side must now dig themselves out from the Eastern Conference cellar and back into the playoff picture to defend their MLS Cup crown.

One door closes…

And they say another opens. That may be the case for New York City FC boss Patrick Vieira with regards to the Arsenal job. Arsene Wenger has confirmed his departure and recommended his former destroyer succeed him. At least some board members are considering the possibility.

It seems early. Vieira has had some measure of success at City but nothing tangible. There are no trophies in his cabinet.

Nor is that a case of their being just the one to win. While the MLS Cup does go to the club who qualifies for and then wins the playoffs, there is also the Supporters Shield for best regular season record, the US Open [the American FA] Cup, and the CONCACAF Champions League. There are at least three trophies on offer every season for each MLS club. Vieira hasn’t claimed any after two full seasons in charge.

He has built a strong side for the Manchester City affiliate, improving the squad every campaign. This season, the team is in the hunt for the Supporters Shield and are the early MLS Cup favourite. Looking at his progress, Vieira has decided there is no time like the present.

I don’t want this to be perceived that I want to go because I don’t want to leave. But if the question is as simple as ‘are you ready to manage any teams in Europe?’ then I would say yes. I am ready. I think we’re all doing this job because one day we want to coach the biggest teams in Europe.

Coaches are like athletes.They dream of competing in the top leagues and competitions. To realise the dream requires confidence, but self-assurance can blind you to reality. One has to believe Vieira will take the job if it is offered. He has publicly acknowledged his advisors would have to get him out of his current contract. That only tells you he is hopeful for the opportunity. But a top club in MLS is far from the same level as a top club in the Premier League. It’s like long division. You can get it horribly wrong if you try to skip steps.

On Tap

Vancouver Whitecaps v Real Salt Lake -- Is the chair in Carl Robinson’s BC Place office getting a little warm?

It’s only a quarter of the way through the campaign, but the Whitecaps have hit a rough patch. They have dropped from second to sixth, the final playoff place. After opening the season with a pair of wins, the club at Puget Sound's northern end have taken just four points from their last six.

Scoring hasn’t been the problem for the traditionally defensive-minded boss although his side has only netted once in the past 282 minutes. Brek Shea’s goal came in added time against Real Salt Lake, at Rio Tinto Stadium, with RSL up 2-0. In the three matches combined, however, the club has conceded ten goals.  In all, Robinson’s squad has kept just one clean sheet, in the goalless draw with LA Galaxy immediately before Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival. They’re conceding more than two per game with 17 shipped in their first eight matches.

By comparison, Mike Petke may have his group turned in the right direction at Real Salt Lake. The former Red Bulls coach watched his side respond emphatically to a 4-0 loss to NYCFC by topping Colorado Rapids 3-0 in their last match. Albert Rusnak curled in a perfect free kick from 30+ yards to cap the scoring in injury time. The ball slipped inside the near post against Rapids backup keeper Zac ‘Didn’t do the’ MacMath. Tim Howard was red-carded in the 20th minute.

RSL are in fifth, above Vancouver on goal difference. An away draw would suit them, but if the Whitecaps can’t get their act together, the visitors might sweep both legs of this early season tie.

Weekend Fare

Saturday

Atlanta United v Montreal Impact -- Montreal rediscovered their scoring touch last week but lost 5-3 to LAFC while down a man for the majority. Atlanta were in SoCal to tell Zlatan Ibrahimovic MLS is no longer a league for old men. They came away with a 2-0 victory. Do we expect goals? Yes, yes we do.

Toronto FC v Chicago Fire -- Chicago have Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger but their best player may be Richard Sanchez. The Mexican-American’s reflexes remind one of a younger David de Gea. A little more experience might remove younger from the comparison. TFC come home from Mexico without a trophy, ground to make up, and supporters who need something to cheer after a depressing week. Sanchez will be tested.

Philadelphia Union v DC United -- Philly and United are third and second from bottom in the Eastern Conference respectively. Toronto is the only side below them. The MLS champions won’t stay there. Do the MacMath.

New England Revolution v Sporting Kansas City -- Here’s another opportunity for Brad Friedel to prove he’s the real deal. The freshman Revs coach has his side fourth in the East thanks in part to a 2-2 draw with Patrick Vieira’s City. Now, he must defend Gillette Stadium against the West’s best team. The key will be to stop the rampant Johnny Russell.

Columbus Crew v San Jose -- In eight matches, the Crew have conceded slightly more than a goal per game. In six, San Jose has shipped just over two. If you were wondering why one is in the Eastern playoff hunt while the other languishes near the Western cellar, you have your answer.

Minnesota United v Houston Dynamo -- The Loons have only played twice at home this season, splitting the two games. Their road record is abysmal, one win and four losses, so Adrian Heath needs some home cooking. The Dynamo only seem to get up for elite clubs. They’ve blown out Atlanta and TFC while picking up just two points against the four mere mortal opponents they’ve faced. Home cooking it is.

LA Galaxy v New York Red Bulls -- MLS tried to manufacture this coast-to-coast rivalry for years. The Red Bulls never seemed up for it. Now we have a season where both sides are contending and each has a genuine local derby in their pocket. Still, there's Bradley Wright-Phillips and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Two heavyweight finishers duking it out for 90 minutes. Ring the bell.

Sunday

Colorado Rapids v Orlando City -- Colorado comes home after an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake. First-choice keeper Tim Howard is ruled out after a red card in that contest. Orlando boss Jason Kreis has attacking threats across the pitch: Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Chris Mueller, Will Johnson. Expect them to do the MacMath again on the Rapids backup netminder.

New York City FC v FC Dallas -- City took a hit last week in Portland, losing 3-0. They are no longer unbeaten. Oscar Parejas’ Toros are. Can Patrick Vieira and his cerulean assassins live with that? I doubt it.

LAFC v Seattle Sounders -- Bob Bradley has his new team playing like the Harlem Globetrotters. Always on the road, always winning. Now, their new stadium is finally ready. They christen it against last season’s Western Conference champs, Seattle, and the Sounders are in the Western cellar right now. The thing is, Clint Dempsey and Co just picked up their first win last week, and they did it with the star suspended an extra match at the last minute by the league. Dempsey will be back and possibly a little cranky. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi have been ridiculously good so far, but have you ever had that feeling in your stomach that something was wrong? Alright, I had a Southwestern chicken wrap for lunch that had a little kick, and sometimes they talk back, but I don’t think that’s it. I think the Sounders are going to spoil the Wings’ party.

We’ll find out on Sunday and talk about it in Monday’s Weekend Review. See you then.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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