Real Salt Lake will host one of the best Eastern Conference teams in their only regular season match-up to kick-off 2017. With changes aplenty at RSL and the old guards returning for Toronto, this match will surely set the tone for the coming year for both sides.
The Old Guards
While RSL begins to embrace youth, Toronto has taken a page out of the RSL of old’s book and built a spine of veteran players. In doing so, the Reds have finally been able to find success after a rocky start since joining the league in 2007. Anchored by MLS veteran Drew Moor on the backline and US international captain Michael Bradley in the midfield, the striking tandem of Italian veteran Sebastian Giovinco and US striker Jozy Altidore wreak havoc in their opponent’s 18-yard box. Strong in both attack and defense, Toronto is finally getting the results it has craved.
Despite this, there is barely an age gap between the sides. The average age of the RSL starting XI is 26.9, while Toronto’s is 27. In fact, both sides field a squad of an average age of 25.5.
The difference is while RSL is starting to use veterans to provide depth to their youth, Toronto plays youth off the bench and start their veterans.
What to watch: It will be interesting to see how the Claret-and-Cobalt’s young attackers, such as Albert Rusnak and Jordan Allen, handle the physical presence of Toronto’s defense. Likewise, RSL’s young central defense duo of Aaron Maund and Justen Glad will have their hands full with Toronto’s attack.
As it stands, whichever team’s midfield can be more productive is the side that will likely win.
Route One, the Order of the Day
With such a strong spine, it is easy to see how Toronto would utilize one of the oldest technics in the books.
Toronto is a team that likes to play the ball straight up the center of the pitch, shoving it down their opponent’s formation. It is their style to get the ball onto the head of the central striker (Altidore) or at the feet of their sly playmaker (Giovinco). This unsophisticated and direct tactic is one that most kids learn in the school yard and is often seen in adult leagues around this country. While it is not the flashiest of tactics, route one has its uses.
What to watch: RSL’s central midfield pairing will either make it, or break it when it comes to this match. Beckerman’s aging legs will be pushed to the limits if he is able to take the field, but without him can RSL cope?
Mulholland and Sunny are very capable replacements, but they lack the rough-and-tumble nature of a distinguished No.6. Will Beckerman, or his replacement be able to handle both Victor Vazquez presence and ghosting runs of Giovinco?
Keys to the Match
1. Clog up the center – RSL must not allow Toronto time and space in the center of the pitch. RSL’s two central pairings must remain tight and organized throughout the match.
2. Attackers contributing defensively – Playing with two wingbacks, Toronto can be just as deadly up the flanks as it is down the center when attacking. While the Claret-and-Cobalt’s attackers are not necessarily relied upon to defend, their services will be need against the Reds. The trio of Joao Plata, Rusnak, and Allen will be needed in their own defensive third if they hope to avoid leaking goals like they have during the preseason.
3. Score more than your opponents’ covert – While this may seem like the most basic of ideas, it won’t necessarily be easy under the threat of the offensive juggernaut that is Toronto. As RSL’s wingers fall back to provide defensive depth, they must also be able to get up the pitch quick for a counter-attack. As the wingers will have dual roles, and consequently rack up the most on their odometers, Cassar with have to watch to assure their fresh-legged replacements come on before their tanks are on empty.
Expected Toronto FC Lineup (5-3-2):
DEF: Beitashour, Zavaleta, Moor, Hagglund, Morrow
MID: Cooper, Bradley, Vazquez
ATT: Giovinco, Altidore
Watch RSL take on Toronto FC on Saturday March 4th at 2.30 pm MST at Rio Tinto, on KMYU or listen to Bill Riley on ESPN 700.