A revamped Toronto FC make the trip to Colorado on Saturday on the back of a crushing 6-0 defeat to Montreal Impact in the Canadian Championship, looking to kick-start their stuttering MLS campaign. The calamity that has been TFC in MLS seemed to have finally taken a step in the right direction this off-season with the appointment of Ryan Nelsen at head coach despite his lack of managerial experience. Nelsen's confident demeanor and authoritative personality is exactly what was needed for a team that has not made the playoffs since its move into MLS in 2007 and has shed managers at an alarming rate.
Over the off-season Toronto reshaped their squad, much like the Rapids, into one with an abundance of youth at the expense of some more experienced players. Along with the new young lads brought in by the management team, the signing of Robert Earnshaw brings both the ability and experience to improve on last year's team. Earnshaw has scored for fun whenever he gets a decent run in the team and has proven this with his red hot start to the 2013 campaign, bagging five goals in six games.
To provide Earnshaw with goalscoring opportunities, TFC have brought in Hogan Ephraim on loan from Queens Park Rangers as well as John Bostock from Tottenham Hotspurs. Ephraim, another player off the West Ham United conveyor belt of youth, moved to QPR in 2008 but has failed to make much of an impact, playing most of his football whilst they were still in the Championship. Bostock is similar to Ephraim in that respect. After bursting onto the scene for Crystal Palace at 15 years of age, he was quickly snapped up by Spurs and was tipped for big things. However, the past few years have been characterized by loans to Football League clubs without ever really getting a shot at the big time with Spurs.
In addition, TFC acquired the experienced utility-man Darel Russell and ex-Chivas USA centreback Danny Califf to add some authority to the defence. The newly-signed Matias Laba is also an interesting one. The ex-Argentinos Juniors midfielder will take up a young designated-player slot and should add some steel to their central midfield which may be called upon on Saturday due to Toronto's congested schedule and a few injury problems.
Their start to the season has been somewhat mixed. With one win, three defeats and four draws, Toronto sit 9th in the Eastern Conference ahead of only D.C. United. Things could be much different for the Reds though as they have dropped seven points so far by conceding later than the 89th minute. Whether it is a lack of concentration or leadership, it is something that has already become a theme of TFC's season and needs to be addressed quickly as they would be sitting pretty in 2nd had they kept their heads for a few more minutes. A positive for Toronto fans so far has been that for a team sitting at the bottom end of the standings, they have scored a lot of goals. If they can rectify the leaky back line, they could start to move on up.
As you can probably guess, their main weakness is in defence. At either side they have young and inexperienced players in Ryan Richter and Ashtone Morgan who have both endured tough starts to the season - particularly Morgan who has been found wanting on a few big occasions. This seems the logical place to get at a Toronto team that will be reeling after their smashing at the hands of the Impact on Wednesday. The late goals also show that TFC have been missing the leadership that is needed to close out games at the top level. Although Califf started the game against LA Galaxy where their run of late goals conceded started, he is the sort of guy who would sort out a backline and would provide a good partner for O'Dea. I can't see Nelsen sticking with the same pairing on Saturday and would expect Califf to get back the starting job.
As obvious as their weaknesses are, so are their strengths. Robert Earnshaw scores for fun. The start to his MLS career has been blistering, bagging five goals and bedding in quickly into a TFC team that is doing well going forward. Earnshaw's movement will be a thorn in the side of Drew Moor and co. as he will be forever on their shoulders ready to spring in behind onto a through ball. Providing Justin Braun is fit (as he missed out on their defeat at Montreal), he will provide the perfect foil for Earnshaw with his power and aerial ability and the big man/little man combo will be tough to defend against.
What has helped Earnshaw and others get their goals has been the creativity from the midfield. Luis Silva, Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock possess a wealth of flair and any one of those three have the potential to unlock a defence if given the time and space. That's why whoever takes the place of Hendry Thomas is going to have to get in their faces and be tight on their man throughout the 90 minutes. Luckily for the Rapids, there's no way of fitting them all centrally and therefore there will only be the one to contend with in the centre of the park. In my opinion, Bostock is wasted out wide. He has not put in the performances that have been expected of him but mostly because he has been played out of position. It is likely, though, that Silva will start centrally but if Bostock does then it could provide even more of a challenge to our defence as he has the potential to pull something special out at any time (like this screamer a few years ago).
To beat this TFC team the Rapids firstly have got to be disciplined in midfield with Hendry's replacement shackling the more advanced centre midfielder, most likely Luis Silva, and stopping him from threading through balls to Earnshaw. Secondly, Moor and O'Neill have to be on their toes all game and not lose sight of Earnie. It might be conducive to play a little deeper to leave less space in behind the defence and therefore lessening the chance of TFC getting in one-on-one which has been a staple of their attacking play this season. If we can keep the ball and the pressure on at the other end of the pitch, Toronto's defence will give up opportunities. We just have to take them. Chances like the one Danny Mwanga got last weekend need to be taken and if they are, the three points are there for the taking.
Potential TFC lineup: Bendik; Richter, Califf, O'Dea, Morgan; Lambe, Silva, Hall, Ephraim; Earnshaw, Braun