RSL Soapbox) Seems like there is a lot of cautious optimism among TFC fans, but is this the year that Toronto makes the MLS Playoffs?
Waking the Red) Playoffs?!! Playoffs?!! You're talking about playoffs?!! Cautious optimism is the absolutely correct term for the general feeling here in Toronto regarding the possibility of perhaps making it into the post-season for the first time in nine long years - and MLS was kind enough to lower the bar a little, adding yet another spot; not that that has helped in the past.
There's no way to sugar coat it, the inability to reach the playoffs, let alone contend for a championship, has seriously hampered this club and doused cold water on a rabid fan base. Toronto sports fans, like most, are a fatalistic bunch; success is rare and far between here. Winners are heralded quickly - see the rise of the Raptors - while losers are run out of town, or at least bad-mouthed a whole lot - see the Leafs.
In some ways, one could actually blame Salt Lake for thieving Toronto's destiny.
Back in 2009, when TFC were on the verge of the playoffs, needing only to win against the league-worst Red Bull in New York to take the final place, a 5-0 loss, combined with a Salt Lake result would see Jason Kreis' side squeak into the playoffs. And well, the rest, as they say, is history.
When fans have seen so many teams assembled that were supposed to be the one, they are wise to reserve hope and wait for proof. Through two matches, there have been indications that once more it could go either way.
RSL Soapbox) Do you foresee Jozy Altidore having the best season of his career? Does playing for Toronto positively or negatively affect his U.S. Men's Team status?
Waking the Red) Best of his career is hard to say, he enjoyed some good times in Holland, but one can say with a certain amount of confidence that he will have a better time - on the pitch at least - than he did in England, Turkey, or Spain (that business with Xerez was just bizarre).
It's always difficult, if not impossible, to predict just how a player will do in a new situation - there are so many parameters and unknowns to consider. But one can imagine that he will be more comfortable here - Canada is not the US, but it is close (sort of) - and something as simple as comfort can do wonders for the confidence. Strikers especially, feed off of confidence, and as he gets games and goals under his belt, it can be expected that Altidore will flourish in a league he excelled in as a teen.
As for the US team, having a confident Altidore, playing regularly and scoring, can only be a good thing. He took his goals in Vancouver very well, and so far that form has carried into his international appearances. Plus, having him on the field with Michael Bradley, further developing their partnership is bound to have positive ramifications for the American side.
RSL Soapbox) RSL fans feel like they got a steal in acquiring Joao Plata. What was it about Toronto FC that did not make sense for Plata and is there much talk about him amongst the Toronto fans?
Waking the Red) TFC has a long history of players leaving only to flourish elsewhere in the league, so it comes as no surprise that Plata has excelled with Salt Lake. Nobody expected him to hit the heights he has so quickly, which adds a little extra bitterness to the equation.
He was undoubtedly a fan-favourite in his time here. This town loves scrappers and hustlers, categories in which Plata earns high marks. And his departure was a sad day for many.
Exactly why he was allowed to leave is a little murky. There appeared to be a clash of personalities between himself and then coach Paul Mariner - Mariner infamously referred to Plata as a 'one in six player', meaning he only showed his quality in one of six matches, a notion he has thoroughly disproved in Salt Lake.
His peculiar status, initially on loan from LDU Quito only to reportedly be purchased at the start of 2012, further muddied the waters, and when Plata took it upon himself to announce prematurely he would be returning to Ecuador on loan when he was struggling to get into the first team, the club reacted badly to a spot of immaturity from the young player.
It was indeed a steal for Salt Lake, acquiring Plata for the minor cost of a Second Round pick - it turned into a player named Edwin Rivas, who is playing with TFC II, the USL side, so it remains to be seen if Toronto got anything out of the deal.
There is still much love for Plata, and as far as lopsided trades go in this franchise's history, no doubt this one ranks amongst the worst. Thankfully he won't be available for Sunday, as former Toronto players have a tendency to work out some grievances when playing against TFC, so fans he will be spared that indignity, for now.
***Questions from Waking the Red to RSL Soapbox***
Waking the Red) Salt Lake has constantly been forced to evolve over the years, losing key players and managerial figures with every turn of the calendar, only to maintain their lofty position amongst the class of the league. What is their secret? Asking for a friend, who could use some advice...
RSL Soapbox) There are two main reasons for Real Salt Lake's sustained success. The first is that Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey gave the club a culture of team-oriented success rather than a big-name DP or star-centric team. Part of that includes investing capital in the residential academy which is widely regarded as one of the top two in the country. The fans have bought in and are fully invested in the culture of the club that really started from scratch.
The other reason is that once RSL found a core of players that could consistently lead the team, they stuck with them. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando have been compared to Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz. Many successful teams across professional sports have that recipe for success. If you have consistent, talented, veteran players you are more likely to be a competitive team year in and year out.
Waking the Red) Jeff Cassar made a bold decision to abandon the famed diamond-midfield of Jason Kreis, favouring instead a 4-3-3 so far this season. How has that tinkering been viewed in Salt Lake; is their faith in Cassar's choice, or are some concerned about leaving behind that which brought success?
RSL Soapbox) The change in system was received well by fans overall. As with most things, people don't like change but the RSL front office has made their case as to why this will work and they are pretty convincing. They have also been honest that it will get better over time. This isn't something that they will be fantastic at from the get go. Part of the reason they made the change in formation is that teams were starting to figure out how to paralyze the diamond. This did not happen every game, but when it did it was really frustrating. Typically it would involve teams parking the bus in front of goal and when that happens, there is no use playing the diamond as it requires more of an open game to be its best.
Salt Lake has the players right now that allow them to switch to a 4-3-3. They have very athletic defenders that can recover well. They have three very talented forwards in Joao Plata, Alvaro Saborio, and Sebastian Jaime that once they are have a few games under their belts in this formation will hopefully play very well off of each other. It also affords Javier Morales more space to roam and create.
All that said, it will take a while for the team to really flourish with this change. But I am confident that it will come in the latter half of the season. If for some reason it doesn't pan out, Cassar is going to have a lot of questions to answer.
Waking the Red) Like Toronto, Salt Lake will be without several starters for Sunday's match. Who are a few unfamiliar faces that could get a run out - is Devon Sandoval ready to replace Alvaro Saborio? Can Jeff Attinella deputize for Nick Rimando, or is it time to give Lalo Fernandez a look? In that similar spirit, which of the several homegrown players should outsiders be aware of for the future?
RSL Soapbox) Devon Sandoval is the likely candidate to replace Alvaro Saborio. There was even an article about it in the local newspaper, Salt Lake Tribune, touching on Sandoval trying to regain his form of 2014 when he had a fantastic rookie season. Since then he has been in a slump and hasn't been able to get on the stat sheet in any meaningful way. There is an off chance that Jordan Allen gets a shot at some significant minutes up front which I personally would love to see, but it's not as likely. He is one of the homegrowns to keep an eye on going forward. Other homegrowns to watch are Sebastian Saucedo, a local from Park City, Utah that for lack of any other original term, has a nose for goal. Justin Glad is the other academy product that is likely to be a fantastic defender. He has shown very well for himself with the limited first team minutes that he has played.
Jeff Attinella is more than likely to man the posts with Rimando out on national duty. He has had very few slip-ups when he has seen MLS minutes and is a very solid backup keeper.
Waking the Red) Barbed Question - How does it feel to be a so-called 'small market' team when the 'big' clubs - New York, LA, Seattle, Toronto (ha) - get all the attention?
RSL Soapbox) I can't come up with a good response. Something about RSL's all time record vs. TFC.
Prediction: Attinella, Beltran, Schuler, Olave, Mansally, Beckerman, Mulholland, Morales, Garcia, Sandoval, Jaime.
Goalscorer(s): Morales, Jaime