Wednesday’s match between Toronto FC and the Portland Timbers should be an interesting affair, as it gives the Reds a chance to move out of the last place spot they’ve occupied almost all season.
With Portland having a bye week and TFC ‘s game against the Columbus Crew being postponed, these two sides remain separated by just one point at the very bottom of the MLS standings. Despite Portland’s recent poor form, it’ll be a tough game for TFC because of the absence of some key players due to international commitments.
As well as Canadians Doneil Henry and Terry Dunfield, Ryan Johnson and Dicoy Williams will go off to join the Jamaican squad, and we’ll have to wait for Darren O’Dea’s debut as he’s away with Ireland.
Looking past Williams and O’Dea, the other three have been key players under Paul Mariner, and how they’re replaced will be an important factor in the game, as well as perhaps shedding light on just where some players stand.
After slotting in at centre back earlier this season, Henry has filled the right back spot over the last five games. His obvious replacement would be Jeremy Hall, but he may not be fit due to injury. Matt Stinson is also an option, though most of the games he played at right back have been as part of a back five and he hasn’t inched near the first team under Mariner. When O’Dea is available, we may see the return of Richard Eckersley to right back, and that would be one obvious solution in this game, though that would then leave an empty space in the middle.
Despite getting minutes in the friendly against Liverpool, Adrian Cann hasn’t made a full return from injury, despite himself tweeting that he feels ready to play. If he doesn’t get any action against Portland, it could be a sign he’s not in Mariner’s long-term plans. When Miguel Aceval was released, Mariner talked about the need for speed in defence. Obviously that isn’t Cann’s strong point, nor is it O’Dea’s. If speed is a priority then there may not be room for both of them.
Over on the other side of defence, there’ll be no problem as Ashtone Morgan wasn’t released to Canada, though given he was in Stephen Hart’s squad earlier this year, enquiries must have been made and a compromise reached. It’s a good sign for Morgan (and a sign of the lack of options at left back for TFC) that he was kept.
In midfield, Dunfield has worked well alongside Torsten Frings, and even chipped in with a couple of goals. His absence will probably mean a start for Aaron Maund. The rookie defender has been converted into a defensive midfielder in his recent substitute appearances, though that has usually been alongside Frings and Dunfield, rather than replacing either one of them. A full game against a weak Portland team should be a very good opportunity for Maund to make a case for a continued place in the squad.
Having two defensive midfielders shielding the defence has been an integral part of what Mariner has done since taking over, so it’s unlikely that Eric Avila would replace Dunfield ahead of Maund. Avila has already fallen behind TFC’s other 2012 draft pick Luis Silva in midfield. Even Andrew Wiedeman has been preferred recently, so it seems likely Avila could be another player not in the coach’s future plans.
Up front, it will be strange not seeing Ryan Johnson out there, as aside from being subbed off in the Champions League game against CD Aguila, he’s been on the pitch for every minute of every league match so far. We may see Silva pushed up front, but Johnson’s absence could give a chance to Quincy Amarikwa to strike up a partnership with Eric Hassli. Amarikwa’s pace could be a good compliment to Hassli’s ability to hold up the ball and pull the defence out of position.
Fringe players getting a chance to show what they can do is a good thing, but it’s definitely an annoyance for a team to have to work around international dates. Sadly TFC will have to deal with this again in September when they take on Chicago in a game that was rearranged to allow both teams to play friendlies in July.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.