MLS Weekend Review: What's wrong with Toronto FC?
Major League Soccer’s third week of competition is in the books. Let me catch you up.
3. Alberth Elis -- The Houston Dynamo forward had a big day in front of a small crowd in Maryland. DC United were playing the first of two home matches at an alternate venue while their new Audi Field undergoes the final touches. With the match still scoreless, the Honduran, aka La Panterita, pounced on a week header back to the keeper. As David Ousted charged out in vain, Elis calmly lobbed the ball past then ran onto it for the finish. The 22-year-old was quickest to another wayward pass from United in their own end just a minute later. Elis carried it into the 18 then squared for Mauro Manotas to tap in. The Dynamo talisman could have added both another goal and helper were it not for poor finishing. His miss was a sitter from ten yards that sailed over the bar. Nevertheless, the chip and finish on the first goal were just too sublime to ignore.
2. Graham Zusi -- The Sporting Kansas City right-back curled one in from 25 yards after cutting into the middle in SKC’s raucous 3-2 home-opening win against San Jose Earthquakes. The crowd was loud and fired up despite the match taking place in a blizzard. As with all the USMNT veterans, the 31-year-old was not called up for the international friendly v Paraguay. With his focus entirely on club play, he released an early candidate for goal of the year in MLS.
1. Josef Martinez -- Atlanta United travelled virtually coast-to-coast to play Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. Having lost their season opener on the road in ignominious fashion, the pressure was on Gerardo Martino’s young guns to prove they could play fluidly on the road without 70,000 fans behind them. They were aided in their mission by ill-discipline from Whitecaps' Costa Rican defender Kendall Waston and VAR. During a scramble in the box, Waston elbowed Franco Escobar in the temple. The referee did not see it but it was picked up by the video official. Martinez stylishly finished the resultant penalty. Vancouver were forced to play out the match with ten men. In the second-half Martinez sent Vancouver keeper Stefan Marinovic the wrong way again, this time when cleanly in on goal. He literally capped off his hat trick with a header back against the grain from three yards.
Major League Soccer will not be idle during the international break. The competition only takes time off for the World and Gold Cup group stages, the first out of respect, the second because too many players are unavailable.
This time out the USSF is doing the league a solid. With the United States not going to the World Cup and a new head coach and general manager [read as technical director] yet to be installed, there is no urgent need for top players in friendlies. Veterans such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Graham Zusi won’t be around for the next tournament anyway. It makes sense to leave them with their clubs and take a good look at younger players.
That is what interim boss Dave Sarachan is doing. Bruce Arena’s former number two has even left Christian Pulisic in Dortmund. The 19-year-old is a known commodity. There is no point upsetting his routine with a needless transatlantic crossing.
Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin is an exception. The right-back has finally put together a string of matches following an extended injury absence. His recovery must be assessed. Otherwise a mix of overlooked veterans and young stars have been invited to the party.
Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj, Ipswich Town’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Vitesse’s Matt Miazga are among the Europe-based contingent. So is Paris Saint-Germain youth star Tim Weah.
MLS stars who have been summoned include Columbus Crew and Toronto FC goalkeepers Zack Steffen and Alex Bono. The USMNT have long relied on Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Real Salt Lake netminder Nick Rimando. Howard and Rimando are 39 and 38 respectively. Guzan is just 33 but the federation must consider who will stand between the sticks for the next generation.
Toronto FC has lost its first two matches in the 2018 MLS season. Columbus Crew came into BMO Field on Opening Day and spanked the MLS Cup champions 2-0. After a bye week TFC travelled to Stade Saputo for an Upper/Lower Canada derby against Montreal Impact. For the second time in succession last season’s most potent attack was kept off the board, this time in a 1-0 defeat.
Greg Vanney fielded an almost full-strength XI. Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, and Jozy Altidore all started. So did new Dutch signing Gregory van der Wiel. Only playmaker Victor Vazquez was missing, with a back injury.
The Reds have played brilliantly in the CONCACAF Champions League, defeating Liga MX Apertura champions Tigres UANL to advance to the semifinal. The campaign’s early doors are reminiscent of Real Madrid’s poor La Liga start. Usually, it’s an honour to be compared to the Merengues. Just not in this context.
MLS’ Eastern Conference is stacked. Both Atlanta United and New York City FC are title contenders. Despite their listless 0-0 draw away to Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew remains in the equation. New York Red Bulls are also strong playoff contenders despite trading away their second captain in as many years. TFC cannot afford to fall too far behind.
The fixture list presents an immediate opportunity to right the ship. The Reds next three matches are home. In league play they face bottom table sides DC United and Real Salt Lake. Those games sandwich their CCL first leg match with Liga MX powerhouse Club America. Alex Bono’s USMNT call-up will not be an issue. Toronto has another bye next weekend. The homestand doesn’t begin until 31 March. The squad will be rested. There will be no travel. Greg Vanney can start a full-strength side in all three contests and attempt to steep his side’s continental momentum into the domestic competition. If he cannot, there will be real cause for concern.