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MLS Match of the Week

Toronto vs. RSL: Irresistible Force & Immovable Object

Undefeated Toronto FC is the league’s new must-watch team, and a trip out west to face perennial contender Real Salt Lake will be the club’s toughest test yet. Here's ASN's first MLS Match of the Week.

BY Mike McCall Posted
March 28, 2014
2:08 PM
STARTING HERE AND NOW we will supply you with everything you need to know ahead one absolute, can’t-miss, cancel-your-other-plans MLS Match of the Week. For our first installment: Toronto FC travels to Utah to play Real Salt Lake, a contest full of so many subplots and so much intrigue we frankly can't wait for kickoff.

THE SET-UP

The “Bloody Big Deal”—Toronto FC's new moniker/slogan/war cry after the recent acquisitions of Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, Gilberto, and Julio Cesar—kicked off the season with wins at Seattle and at home against lowly D.C. United, with everything going according to plan. Bradley is dominant in midfield, Defoe is scoring at will, Cesar has allowed only one goal, and the club has its first-ever 2-0 start.

New money meets the old guard in this one, as RSL boasts an established and talented lineup in the midst of a brutal start to the year. A scheduling quirk meant two matchups against the L.A. Galaxy (a win and draw) in the first three games, along with a 3-3 draw at San Jose. And it won’t get easier from here, as an MLS Cup Final rematch looms next week in Kansas City.

TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen, apparently unimpressed by that schedule, called his team’s calendar “probably the toughest start of any team in the whole of the league” during a press conference this week. He added: “The way we started is obviously very pleasing, but we’ve got another two away games that are extremely difficult. The one thing I like about these guys is they like it when they’re kind of the underdogs.”

Tough schedule or not—the Reds face 2-0 Columbus next—the club won’t be able to call itself an underdog for long if it maintains its current level of play.

An injury-depleted RSL strike force takes some of the shine off this meeting, but there’s still plenty of reason to tune in when the two face off Saturday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern at Rio Tinto Stadium. You can watch on TSN2, MLS LIVE (with subscription), or via websites of questionable legality.

JURGEN IN THE HOUSE

This one also comes with the Jurgen Klinsmann Seal of Approval, as the U.S. coach will reportedly be in attendance to watch a clash between four players he called up for the April 2 friendly against Mexico: TFC’s Bradley, and RSL’s holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman, goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and attacking midfielder Luis Gil.

Bradley is obviously the main draw from a national team perspective. As expected, the ASN No. 1 has been outstanding thus far, tied for second in the league with eight key passes despite playing one fewer match than most of his competition. His instinctive, perfectly placed through-ball led to the lone goal in a 1-0 win against D.C. last week, and he’s showing the leadership and relentlessness that has become his trademark.

Although some U.S. supporters were unhappy to see Bradley leave Europe, the opportunity to watch him at his best in MLS brings undeniable entertainment value. And while it’s possible that facing less-prestigious competition could stunt his development, there are no signs of that so far. Plus, the chance to play every minute and get more involved in the attack are two big benefits.

Bradley only added to his legend via a collision with D.C. United’s Davy Arnaud last week, which left him with a bloody dome that required a baker’s dozen of staples and resulted in a look that’s straight off the poster of a “Saw” movie.

There’s not much for Klinsmann to say to Bradley besides, “Keep your head sewn together and carry on,” so it’s more likely he’s there to evaluate the guys on the other side: Beckerman, Rimando, and Gil.

Beckerman has played himself into contention for a spot on the World Cup roster, and this match presents a great test of his abilities. He’ll have to duel with Bradley in midfield, limit Defoe, and initialize the RSL attack—with the good news being that TFC may be without Bradley’s midfield partner, Jonathan Osorio, due to injury.

The steady Rimando isn’t going to be taking down Tim Howard or Brad Guzan with the national team, so the biggest opportunity to impress Klinsmann may belong to the 20-year-old Gil, who picked up his first full national team cap during a 2-0 win against South Korea on Feb. 1. He has a very bright future with the national team, but a question persists: When does Gil become a U.S. national team regular?

RSL: MISSING A GEAR?

Speaking of Gil, RSL needs a lot from him in this one. Top scorer Joao Plata has been derailed by a hamstring injury after notching two goals and two assists in three games, and Devon Sandoval (foot) and Robbie Findley (knee surgery) are also out.

Plata’s absence takes some bite out of the RSL attack. Alvaro Saborio and Olmes Garcia are the top remaining options at forward, and Gil and 34-year-old playmaking midfielder Javier Morales will be counted on to create chances and give the match some balance.

Defense is Toronto’s glaring question mark. After allowing a whopping 62 goals in 2012, the Reds showed improvement last year (47 goals allowed) but were not of playoff caliber. Eight defenders notched 10 or more starts, but so far this year Justin Morrow, Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, and Mark Bloom have played every minute across the back.

Gil and Morales will need to navigate through the Bradley-led TFC midfield to create chances and test that back line, and RSL coach Jeff Cassar even told the Salt Lake Tribune this week that Gil could suit up at forward in a pinch.

“We have options,” Cassar said. “I’m not sweating it at all.

ALL EYES ON DEFOE

It’s a bummer that Plata will be out, both because he’s playing well and because he began his MLS career north of the border before the Reds traded him. But Toronto’s Jermain Defoe should provide plenty of excitement. The big-name signing from Tottenham has been as advertised so far, with three goals in two games. He’s a quick, opportunistic presence leading the line for Toronto, and paired with Gilberto, Defoe will give RSL’s back line all it can handle.

However, defense is the home squad’s strong suit. RSL conceded just 1.15 goals per match in 2013, the fifth-best average in MLS. And the likes of Chris Wingert, Chris Schuler (ASN No. 80), Nat Borchers (No. 68), and Tony Beltran (No. 67) aren’t likely to be fazed.

“He’s fast,” Borchers said of Defoe in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. “When you’re able to time your runs well like he does, and he’s able to get into good spots and he’s clinical. He’s like Robbie Keane, but with more pace, and that’s really difficult to account for.”

A faster version of Keane would not be good news for Salt Lake—particularly Schuler, who had an unfortunate run-in with the Irish captain during last week’s 1-1 draw against L.A.

That matchup of the RSL defense against Defoe and Gilberto will be fun to watch, while Beckerman and Bradley duel for control of midfield and Gil tries to provide a threat going forward on the other end.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

Although RSL is the home side, injuries will make this one a tough task. After preseason punditry questioned Salt Lake’s aging talent and whether Cassar could step in for departed head coach Jason Kreis, this week brings a chance to make a statement by halting Toronto’s momentum. And the team could also use a complete performance after blowing leads its last two times out.

For the Canadian club, it’s far too early in the season to be making title predictions, but a win here would keep TFC perfect, with road wins against two of the league’s most talented teams. And that would bring this season one step closer to fulfilling the hallucination of at least one ASN correspondent: a Toronto FC MLS Cup victory party that features Drake performing a “Started from the Bottom” remix with a guest verse from a half-bionic Bradley while club president Tim Leiweke levitates above the proceedings in a platinum throne.

We can’t promise Drake or levitation in this one, but Toronto and Real Salt Lake have plenty of talent to keep you entertained on Saturday.

This is Mike McCall’s first piece for American Soccer Now. Tell him what you thought about it in the comments below, and follow him on Twitter.

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