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Real Salt Lake vs. Toronto FC preview: Season opener no walk in the park

RSL is thrown right into the fire as 2016 MLS Cup runners-up visit Rio Tinto Stadium this weekend in the season opener.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally, finally here. I know, I can’t believe it either. The first game of the 2017 MLS season is upon us, and RSL kicks their campaign off with a test that’s as tough as it gets when Sebastian Giovinco and Toronto FC roll into town.

If this isn’t a perfect way to throw Albert Rusnak and the other new RSL signings into the fire, I don’t know what is. Toronto is a tough team, without a doubt.

Match history

RSL holds the edge in the all-time match-up history, with eight wins, five losses, and two draws in regular season play against Toronto. However, that includes the Toronto of yesteryear, before they added the likes of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, and Jozy Altidore. As we all know, they’re a completely different team in recent years than they were in the past.

The last time these two sides met was in August 2016 when RSL traveled to Toronto for a 1-0 loss, thanks to a 68th-minute goal from TFC newcomer Tosaint Ricketts.

Real Salt Lake won the four previous meetings, dating all the way back to 2012.

New season, slightly different look

With the departure of a slew of players from Salt Lake — most notably Javier Morales, Jamison Olave, and Burrito Martinez — we’ve obviously seen a few new key signings that have set the fanbase abuzz. Everyone is looking forward to see what Javi’s replacement Albert Rusnak can do. He’s a young, quick, and creative attacking midfielder whose signing has caused some waves across MLS. While expectations may be high, nobody should expect him to be able to completely fill the giant void that Javi left right away. We got a good glimpse at him in preseason, but expect it to take some time for him to find his feet and his perfect place in the squad.

In case you’ve been living under a rock — or just haven’t been reading RSL Soapbox — other notable signings for the claret and cobalt include Brooks Lennon, Chad Barrett, David Horst, Luis Silva, Matt Van Oekel, Sebastian Saucedo, and Jose Hernandez.

Toronto had a relatively quiet offseason, with the biggest player departing the club being Will Johnson, who landed at Orlando City with the old boss Jason Kreis. TFC did bring in attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez from Cruz Azul, defender Chris Mavinga from Rubin Kazan, and signed homegrown player Sergio Camargo to an MLS contract.

Other than that, the Reds bring basically the same team that saw them make it to the MLS Cup Final in 2016, headlined by none other than the Atomic Ant Sebastian Giovinco, who finished the regular season with 17 goals and 15 assists last season through 28 games played. Along with star forward Jozy Altidore and stalwart midfielder Michael Bradley, they’ve got themselves a solid roster.

Toronto also boasts one of the toughest defenses in the league — led by MLS veterans Drew Moor and Justin Morrow — recording 10 shutouts last season.

What to expect

It’s hard to look into the crystal ball and predict what’s going to happen in the season opener, but we can expect a hard-fought battle, especially in the midfield. With RSL most likely starting with two holding mids — Beckerman and Sunny — they will look to make Giovinco’s job a lot tougher and close down both his passing and shooting options.

We can also look and hope for some more of the smooth combination play between Rusnak and Yura Movsisyan that we saw brief flashes of in preseason, although with TFC’s solid center-back tandem, we may see RSL try to stretch the play out wide to Joao Plata and Jordan Allen on the wings as well.

Near the end of last season, Toronto opted to play a 3-5-2, with Drew Moor as the lone center-back while both Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour moved up to play in the midfield. How coach Greg Vanney chooses to put his lineup out this season remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that RSL will be without Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, and Bofo Saucedo while they’re all out with the USMNT U-20 team — and performing incredibly well, might I add.

Real Salt Lake hosts Toronto on Saturday at 2:30pm at Rio Tinto Stadium, and then will travel to Chicago to take on the Fire the following week.

RSL expected lineup: Rimando; Phillips, Maund, Schuler, Beltran; Beckerman, Sunny; Plata, Rusnak, Allen; Movsisyan

TFC expected lineup: Irwin; Zavaleta, Moor, Hagglund, Beitashour; Bradley, Cooper, Osorio, Morrow; Giovinco, Altidore