SANDY — Since joining MLS as an expansion franchise in 2007, Toronto FC has pretty much been an afterthought club around the league.
Despite having a passionate fan base hungry for a winner, and periodic spending on foreign talent to make it happen, Toronto’s missed the playoffs every year and has finished last or second-to-last in the Eastern Conference in five of seven seasons.
Two weeks into the 2014 season, it looks as if Toronto has finally figured things out.
The Canadians are 2-0-0 for the first time in franchise history, and roll into Rio Tinto Stadium this Saturday for the 7:30 p.m. match confident and anxious to continue their bright start.
“They’ve brought in some really good players, some world-class players with international experience, so I think they’re a team that has a rebirth a little bit,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
“They’re a team that’s buying into the philosophy. They have a lot of players working hard on both sides of the ball, guys that are fighting for one another. They seem to have the chemistry they’ve lacked and the leadership they’ve lacked in past seasons, which is important in this league.”
Two games in, Toronto FC seems to have hit the jackpot with the offseason signings of English international Jermain Defoe, U.S. international Michael Bradley, Brazilian international Julio Cesar and big-money striker Gilberto.
“It’s a dangerous team with both their new signings up top and Bradley,” said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. “They’re exciting, they have lot of energy, and they’re dangerous.”
If the 2014 season unfolds how many expect, Toronto and Real Salt Lake will likely both be in Supporters' Shield contention later this October, and this weekend’s early-season clash could have lasting importance.
While Toronto rolls into town with maximum points through two matches, Real Salt Lake has enjoyed a relatively strong start with a 1-0-2 record the first three weeks. It has, however, coughed up second-half leads in the past two games.
Against a dynamic Toronto club with lethal strikers, RSL needs to be much better on the ball than it was in last week’s home opener against the L.A. Galaxy. Despite that frustrating performance, first-year head coach Cassar is pleased with the unbeaten start to the season.
“I’m really happy with the fight of the players right now. I think the soccer has been good at times and not so good at times, but I think that’s to be expected. I’m really proud of the way they’re fighting, grinding teams,” said Cassar.
RSL will be without its most productive attacking player this weekend, with striker Jaoa Plata out a couple of weeks after picking up a hamstring strain in the first half last week. Plata leads RSL with two goals and two assists this season, but Cassar views his absence as an opportunity for someone else to make an impact.
Whether that ends up being likely starter Olmes Garcia, or perhaps Devon Sandoval, who’s working his way back from injury, RSL’s coach doesn’t look at the situation as a negative.
“I really wanted to get a rotation of the forwards anyways, and I’m looking at it as an opportunity, because we’re going to need a good rotation of our forwards to be successful this year,” said Cassar.
RSL defender Chris Wingert is confident in whoever gets the starting nod up top alongside Alvaro Saborio.
“We just need to rely on our depth, which we’ve done the past couple years and it’s served us well. Whoever ends up being in the lineup, we have total confidence we can still get the job done,” said Wingert.