|With so many injuries Toronto FC will be relying on Joao Plata to carry much of the offensive load Saturday night in Salt Lake City. (MIKE PEAKE/Toronto Sun)
After a gut-wrenching, Fredy Montero dead ball let the Seattle Sounders escape BMO Field with three points last weekend, the Reds take aim at one of Major League Soccer’s true fortresses in Salt Lake tonight.
Since opening Rio Tinto Stadium in 2008, Real Salt Lake has suffered an astonishing four home losses through four seasons while continuing to sustain the most stubborn back line in MLS — a veteran defensive corps that has conceded just eight times in 14 games this season.
Comparing that to Toronto’s league-worst 26 goals against presents a meager outlook for a club that is banged up and struggling to score goals.
But with Salt Lake in a similar state of affairs and playing on short rest, the distance between the Champions League finalists and TFC has narrowed for the time being.
Coming off a goalless midweek draw in Chicago, RSL could be without one its more dangerous attacking minds. With Javier Morales out indefinitely and designated player Alvaro Saborio a question following Costa Rica’s Gold Cup exit, dangerous winger Fabian Espindola left the Chicago match minutes in after being on the receiving end of a reckless Cory Gibbs challenge.
As Salt Lake looks to its bench in search of reserves to step in and fill the offensive void, the Reds are in a battle of their own to replace eight regular contributors who continue to chase match fitness ahead of two crucial matches with Vancouver next week.
Although both sides are plagued with injuries and scoring droughts, Toronto’s cuts are much deeper and take on a slightly different form.
While Salt Lake’s knocks are concentrated in the attack, the club’s spine remains intact and healthy. Towering centrebacks Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers make up the strongest defensive tandem in the league while Canadian Will Johnson and Kyle Beckerman give RSL a decisive advantage over a depleted TFC midfield.
If TFC target man Alan Gordon is kept out in preparation for next week’s Voyageurs Cup final, the Reds will have a difficult time linking up with the forwards and holding the ball in the middle of the field. Toronto must rely on Joao Plata and Javier Martina on the flanks to provide opportunities going forward, as well as Richard Eckersley and Danleigh Boreman out of the back.
With a whole host of injuries making the hearth of TFC’s attack, head coach Aron Winter said a number of young players will feature against one of the more organized midfields in the league.
Coming off an uninspiring 45 minutes last week against Seattle, the match may provide 18-year-old Oscar Cordon an opportunity to prove himself in the absence of Julian de Guzman and Tony Tchani.
Similarly, a number of reserves made the trip and could see their first action of the season.
Although Toronto has failed to come away with points in three previous visits to Rio Tinto, injuries to a number of RSL’s top attackers provides a glimmer of hope ahead of the club’s third road test in June.
After witnessing a Hollywood-like comeback in L.A. two weeks ago, the Reds know anything is possible.
TFC at Real Salt Lake
9 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium/ GolTV
Coaches Aron Winter vs Jason Kreis
How do a pair of coaches whose teams are fighting through mounting injuries adjust lineups to cure stingy goal droughts?
* While Salt Lake could be missing up to five of its most efficient attackers, Toronto’s depleted midfield leaves little choice but for Winter to set up in a defensive stance in hopes of stealing a late winner or escaping goalless.
* With both clubs currently on winless streaks, look for Kreis to push the game with the knowledge that the centre of Toronto’s defence will feature two inexperienced defenders who will undoubtedly have a number of lapses to exploit.
* With both bosses forced to start a number of reserves, look to see how each manager addresses the holes in their injury-plagued sides.