From one rivalry match to another, the Vancouver Whitecaps (1-0-0) head across the continent to play a familiar foe in an irregular location, to square off against Toronto FC (0-0-1).
Where: Exploria Stadium, Orlando, FL
When: Saturday, April 24th at 12 Noon PST
How: TSN1, TSN4, CTV (TV); AM730 (Radio); ESPN+ (Internet)
As tough as last week’s victory over Portland may have been, it’s not unreasonable to think Toronto will prove to be a greater challenge, if this weekend’s match were played under normal circumstances, that is.
Yes, Vancouver will be travelling cross-continent to play away to Toronto, but having left Salt Lake City to arrive in Orlando for this all-Canadian match reinforces how arduous this season will undoubtedly be for both clubs.
And again, normally it would be incredibly daunting to get a result from an MLS side that recently saw off reigning Torneo Guardianes champions Club León in the CONCACAF Champions League, with a depleted roster no less. However, it was that same depleted roster that opened the season last week in Ft. Lauderdale with a 4-2 loss to a CF Montreal side that were at the bottom of the league’s preseason rankings.
All told, having to relocate during an ongoing pandemic before playing extra games, one of which in another country, within a truncated schedule, would be bad enough, but having a laundry list of players unavailable due to injury makes matters so much worse for TFC.
In retrospect, having to wait for visas to clear, players to get in game shape, and setting up shop in Salt Lake City doesn’t sound so bad.
What Happened Last Time?
Prior to their respective sojourns south of the border last season, Vancouver and Toronto faced off three times in the Canadian MLS bubble at the end of last summer, with TFC shutting out the Whitecaps twice in Toronto, 3-0 and 1-0, before Vancouver took on back at BC Place, winning 3-2.
In that third match, goals from Lucas Cavallini and Michael Baldisimo gave Vancouver two separate leads before Jake Nerwinski slotted the game winner in the 76th minute.
Two things to note: let’s hope Toronto waffles on dead balls this weekend just as much as they did last year, and that Baldi Backflip was well deserved. Daaaaaamn, was that a volley!
However, it’s also worth mentioning that the 3-2 match saw TFC dominate in possession 66/34, and outshoot the Whitecaps, 22-7. And yet, Vancouver scored on all three of their shots on target. Go figure.
All-time, the Whitecaps are 5-2-6 against TFC in MLS play, though this will be the first time they meet on a neutral pitch.
What’s Up With The Enemy?
Injuries and Internationals. Waking The Red’s Michael Singh goes into great detail as to how the club’s roster fluctuation has come about and what the resultant availability will look like this week for coach Chris Armas. The following pull quote from Armas provides a decent summation of where things are at:
“In the offseason now, guys come back at different levels, and now you start pushing the envelope everyday with intensity and a style of play that’s very demanding. We saw benefits (against Club León) from it, but we’ve also taken a few steps backwards with some guys.
“We’ve taken some knocks as we’ve tried to implement a really high-intensity, transition-based team — and that’s not sometimes. Everyday in training we’re pushing that bar to play faster, your reactions, to push the limits, so that’s what’s happened in this initial stage.”
With the talent on Toronto’s roster, the kind of high-press Armas favors would be a nightmare to face and as evident in their knockout of León in the CCL, TFC can get it done with a short bench.
The problem for TFC to start the season, however, is in navigating said short bench during the quick turnaround times between matches. Case in point: following up a great CCL victory with last week’s clubbing at the hands of the Club de Foot.
By Saturday, it will have been a week since their season-opening loss to Montreal, but Tuesday’s CCL quarterfinal against Cruz Azul will undoubtedly be present of mind for Armas.
How hard do you run your regulars? Do you get your returning players involved right away? And to what degree, knowing you have a big CCL match only three days later?
By the end of the season, Toronto FC will be an absolute terror to play against, particularly after surviving this early season grind, but the only thing I’ll be certain of for Saturday is that all five of their subs will be used.
Who’s Worth Watching?
Lucas Cavallini vs. Omar Gonzalez
I’m going to keep this one short and sweet: whoever comes out grumpier and has the legs to run a full 90 is going to win this battle.
As of Friday morning, the following Whitecaps are listed as Out on the MLS Player Availability report, as each are recovering from respective injuries: Derek Cornelius (knee sprain), Erik Godoy (calf strain), Leonard Owusu (hamstring strain), and Tosaint Ricketts (hamstring strain).
Also unavailable due to pending visa approvals are Javain Brown and Ali Adnan, with the latter keeping himself busy in the mean time.
In keeping up with the Whitecaps’ two most recent International signings, Bruno Gaspar describes himself as still a few weeks away from being match ready, while both he and Caio Alexandre have been participating in full training. For Alexandre in particular, this number reveal gets me thinking he’ll see the pitch this weekend, possibly even starting:
Ready ⚽️ #CA8️⃣ @WhitecapsFC pic.twitter.com/PVfHIgULCU— Caio Alexandre (@CaioAlexandre05) April 23, 2021
Vancouver - Crépeau; Gutierrez, Rose, Veselinovic, Nerwinski; Teibert, Alexandre, Bikel, Caicedo; Cavallini, Dajome
For Toronto, the big names on the injured list are reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo (right thigh) and centerback Chris Mavinga (left calf). Others unavailable this week are Julian Dunn (right hip), Ifunanyachi Achara (ACL surgery), and Erickson Gallardo (groin surgery).
Previously listed as Questionable were Jozy Altidore (right thigh) and Tsubasa Endoh (athletic pubalgia), though both were back at full training this week. If available and ready to go, I would expect Altidore to get the start up top.
Also back at training was Jonathan Osorio, who was suffering through a rare bout of “Too Injured To Play But Was Suspended Anyway,” due in part to violent conduct during last season’s MLS Cup loss to Nashville SC. If his thigh strain is all healed up, I’m thinking Osorio will pair with Michael Bradley at kickoff.
One other name of note is Ayo Akinola. The young striker was thought to be ready to go against Montreal last week after missing both CCL matches against Leon, but ultimately was left off the bench last Saturday for an undisclosed injury that’s proving to be fairly prevalent.
In any case, TFC are missing a lot of big names right now, but having Altidore and Osorio potentially in the starting eleven, or even on the bench for that matter, will surely make for a more difficult match.
Toronto - Bono; Auro, Zavaleta, Gonzalez, Laryea; Osorio, Bradley; Shaffelburg, Okello, Delgado; Altidore
Who’s Going To Win?
For as great as Toronto is most likely going to be by October, the start of the season is going to be brutal. That isn’t to say they’re going to play badly or not get results, mind you. But when you consider their extra games, the unusual homestead, and the extensive injury list, any points that TFC secures will be hard-earned.
Comparatively, last week’s win over Portland has proven that Vancouver can and will dig in when necessary. The Whitecaps put in a solid team effort while also missing a number of players against a Timbers side who played well, but couldn’t capitalize on the chances afford them. If Vancouver can get the same performance from their defense again this weekend, I don’t see why they can’t get another result. They’ll at least prove they’re better than the almost 5/1 odds they’re apparently getting this weekend. At least when their opponent is exhausted and on a short bench, anyway.
Though my head is telling me this one will end in a draw, I’m going with my heart and calling for a 2-1 Whitecaps win.
Eighty Six Forever Team Predictions
Andrew: 1-1 Draw
Caleb: 1-0 Toronto
Luis: 2-0 Vancouver
Sam: 1-1 Draw
Referee: Jair Marrufo; AR1: Corey Rockwell; AR2: Brian Poeschel; 4th: Greg Dopka; VAR: Ted Unkel; AVAR: Kevin Klinger.