TORONTO - For two clubs heading in different directions, if previous meetings are an indication, tonight’s critical Champions League match between group leaders TFC and FC Dallas in Toronto shouldn’t disappoint.
The 2010 MLS finalists converted a questionable penalty in May before needing a Brek Shea wonder goal to defeat TFC by the same 1-0 margin last month.
Toronto looked more than capable of grabbing a point on both occasions and seem to raise their level when battling the Western Conference powerhouse — and when playing in Cup competitions at home.
“If you watch those two games … we were a little unlucky,” head coach Aron Winter told the club’s website.
The Reds own a 4-1-1 record in CONCACAF play at BMO Field since qualifying for the Champions League in 2009.
Through one group match in 2011, both Dallas and Toronto top Group C with three points each after dispatching Pumas and Tauro F.C., respectively, to open proceedings last week.
“In the last two months, with all the trades and all the players, we’re making big steps forward,” Winter said. “(Dallas) will see a different TFC.”
After a pair of critical CONCACAF road results, both sides know an opportunity to go three points clear of the entire group puts them in excellent shape to advance following disappointing league results over the weekend.
The Hoops fell to Seattle in Texas on Saturday while TFC failed to secure its first MLS road win of the season in Chicago.
For Dallas, the minor blip is the least of its worries.
Along with starting central defender George John departing for England, right back Zach Loyd is out injured. The Hoops are also dealing with a grueling schedule that stretches across three competitions starting tonight.
Dallas travels to Kansas City this weekend before heading to Seattle for a U.S. Open Cup match Tuesday. Three games in six days might provoke Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman to use caution with a number of first-team players.
For head coach Aron Winter, it’s the opposite.
“We went with 20 players to Panama and then straight to Chicago,” he said. “Some players have a little bit of soreness but for (tonight) everybody’s fit.”
Following a home match with San Jose on Saturday, the Reds are inactive for two weeks. The light schedule should allow Winter to deploy a full-strength squad in an attempt to solidify top spot in Group C.
Still, the Reds have failed to unlock the Texans through 180 minutes and had a poor offensive showing last week in Panama.
Dallas comes in with a dynamic attack that feeds off the pace of its wingers — something currently absent from most of Toronto’s back four.
With the Reds routinely beaten for pace in Chicago, Winter might drop a fourth man into defence, therefore ending TFC’s 3-4-3 experiment. Dallas has too many weapons in Shea, Fabian Castillo, Marvin Chavez and Jair Benitez to play short-handed at the back.
Torsten Frings was outstanding in his debut against the Hoops last month, which may provoke Winter to move the German back into a more influential role in midfield.
But in moving Frings out of defence, it becomes crucial TFC remains compact in its defensive third as a stretched match favours the visitors. The Hoops find success on the counter whenever space opens between an opponent’s midfield and defence.
That said, anything less than a complete performance won’t suffice against one of the group’s heavy favourites - many have chosen Dallas as the lone MLS club with the potential to go far in the competition.
If the Reds can stay resolute in defence while making good on the chances a makeshift Dallas back line should offer up, top spot after two matches is well within reach.
FC Dallas at Toronto FC
Ryan Johnson (TFC) vs. Ugo Ihemelu (FCD)
How will the departure of George John impact his central partner Ihemelu? If Danny Koevermans misses a second consecutive match, Johnson should replace the big target to do battle with the defensive stalwart. The more mistake-prone of the former defensive pairing, is Ihemelu the same player without John’s rock-solid presence?
STAY OUT OF THE BOOK: With six players carded in Panama last week, a number of important pieces risk suspension if they receive a second booking. With TFC’s next CONCACAF match at Pumas, the Reds can’t afford to face the Mexican giants short-handed.
OUTSIDE BACKS STEP UP: In TFC’s 4-3-3 system, the visitors will have plenty of real estate on the flanks. Facing two of the best outside attackers in MLS, Toronto’s wing backs will have their hands full with Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez — a pair of players with loads of pace and confidence at the moment.
CUT OUT COSTLY MISTAKES: The same old habits continue to cause the Reds to concede bad goals against the run of play, especially in CONCACAF. From bad penalties to ’keeper errors, the Reds have given up some extremely bad goals in the Champions League. Toronto must make the visitors work for its chances.
The Reds were a similar position last year heading into their second group stage match. Playing away at Panama’s Arabe Unido, the Reds failed to make it six points from two matches - a feat that would have seen Toronto progress in the tournament.
New arrival Johnson is already TFC’s all-time leading goal scorer in Champions League play. The Jamaican International has three goals in three CONCACAF matches for the Reds.