|Toronto FC's Julian De Guzman battles for the ball with DC United's Dax McCarty during the first half of their MLS soccer game in Toronto, April 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)
TORONTO - With Toronto FC facing the most demanding portion of its schedule this early in the season, the Reds must take something from Saturday’s Trillium Cup tie with Columbus.
After securing just two points from its last three home matches, TFC plays seven times in three weeks following a forgettable home performance against D.C. United.
A cluster of league and cup games will test TFC’s depth a month into the season, potentially forcing Aron Winter to weigh the importance of winning another Canadian championship against moving up the Eastern Conference standings.
After a home match with Trillium rivals Columbus Crew Saturday, the Reds travel to FC Edmonton for a Cup date Wednesday, before continuing west to Seattle. Toronto then hosts Edmonton in the return leg of the Canadian Cup the following Wednesday, before a home fixture with Houston on May 7.
The Reds end their busy calendar with a third consecutive Wednesday match in Dallas and a home game three days later against Chicago on May 14.
Nagging injuries remain a concern heading into such a difficult stretch of games with three regular starters — Adrian Cann, Alan Gordon and Alen Stevonovic — in and out of training as the weekend approaches.
With more and more questions being asked of the team’s shape, following each successive outing, it’s time for Julian De Guzman to step up and show why he was signed as the club’s first-ever designated player.
De Guzman has shown well since returning from injury against Chivas USA earlier this season. His ability to connect passes and work in tight spaces is second to none in MLS. But the question remains whether he can flourish in Winter’s system or if he is better suited sitting in behind an attacking midfielder while playing a more disruptive and defensive role.
If the Reds are to find any kind of success playing in their current 4-3-3 makeup, De Guzman has to be more influential in the final third. And as TFC continues playing three players across the midfield, it becomes crucial that De Guzman be the link that is currently missing between Toronto’s forwards and fullbacks.
Nobody questions his ability to keep possession, play side-to-side and get stuck in, but can he make the final pass or be an option in the attack?
With a full season under his belt, De Guzman must grow from being a very good role player into a box-to-box midfielder that can take charge and be as influential as a designated player in MLS must be.
Following an up and down introduction two years ago — plagued with injuries and poor performances — De Guzman might be the sharpest we have seen him since his arrival. But in a system that puts pressure on each of its midfielders to help in the attack, can he be the playmaker that sits just beneath TFC’s three attackers and provides the likes of Javier Martina, Maicon Santos and Alen Stevonvich some much-needed service?
Having achieved match fitness with multiple starts under his belt, De Guzman’s performance against the visiting Crew will be a good indication of how the busy portion of TFC’s schedule will go.
WAR OF WORDS
Does Columbus enjoy playing in Toronto? Just ask Duncan Oughton, a former Crew midfielder turned front office suit. “It’s a great place to go because we would always come back with points,” Oughton told the Crew’s Massive Report website earlier this year. “They give us points (in Toronto).” … TFC fired back this week with a web video featuring former Toronto defender Jim Brennan recalling the rivalry before reminding Crew fans they “still have to go back to Columbus” after the game. Apparently retired players are more comfortable talking trash when they move from the locker room to the boardroom … What’s a good rivalry without a villain? In case you missed it, the Crew picked up TFC fan favourite Jeff Cunningham in the offseason. Just imagine the celebration — or chorus of boos that reign down — if he finds net against the club that sent him packing … Crew supporters let social media facilitate their war of words this week, starting the #beforeTFCmakestheplayoffs hashtag on Twitter … One of the replies: The Leafs will win the Stanley Cup … Good one Columbus! TRILLIUM TIME IN T.O.
Need TFC players and fans be reminded of the Crew’s last visit to Toronto?
A 2-2 match featuring two red cards and Columbus goalkeeper Will Hesmer scoring a stoppage time equalizer from a corner kick.
It should have been TFC’s first win over Columbus and would have given supporters a little solace following an otherwise disappointing season.
Fast-forward six months and the Crew come to Toronto as one of the hottest teams in MLS, having not conceded in a club record four straight games.
Heading into TFC’s fifth season, the Reds have managed just six points in 11 all-time meetings with Columbus and have never lifted the Trillium Cup.
Combine that dismal record with some front office trash talk and the rivalry looks to be alive and well.
Richard Eckersley, the man TFC targeted to fill gaping holes in TFC’s defence, was in training this week and told reporters he’s ready to go Saturday if called upon. The 22-year-old former Manchester United reserve might provide the kind of versatility Winter demands of his outside backs … TFC’s Stefan Frei is leading MLS with 24 saves this season. As that number continues to show why he’s one of the top keepers in the league, the stat also indicates he’s being called upon far too often early in the season ... TFC must keep the Crew’s Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven in its sights on Saturday. The Crew’s 4-5-1 system will flood the midfield, freeing up Rogers and Gaven on the flanks. If TFC continue to play without two outside midfielders, the key for Toronto will be finding a way to close down space on the flanks to prevent the Crew’s outside midfielders from taking advantage of TFC’s 4-3-3 system.