TORONTO FC (3-5-1) vs. NEW YORK (5-2-2)
Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET Direct Kick, MLSLive.TV
The roughest stretch of the season is underway for the New York Red Bulls, and they started poorly with a 3-2 loss in Kansas City Saturday. Clint Mathis was ejected for elbowing Kerry Zavagnin in the throat and he could get an extra game tacked onto his suspension, which would rule him out of NYRB road tests Wednesday at Toronto and Sunday at D.C. United. Counting the KC game, NYRB plays six of seven on the road. In any case, Mathis won't be on the field at BMO Field tonight, when the Red Bulls (5-2-2) meet an expansion team that dropped its first four matches but has rebounded with three wins, a loss and a tie in its last five games. TFC left back Kevin Goldthwaite is also suspended.
Despite a long list of absences because of international duty and injuries, Toronto (3-5-1) beat Colorado, 2-1, last weekend. The maturity of rookie midfielder Maurice Edu, the formidable force that is forward Danny Dichio, the throbbing cauldron that is BMO Field, and the sharp serves of Ronnie O'Brien are transforming TFC into a solid MLS team.
In its defeat to Kansas City, New York conceded all three goals after Mathis' ejection. It had beaten Columbus (4-0) and Chicago (3-0) with back-to-back shutouts and leads the league with six blankings, two of them with backup Jon Conway in goal. His goals-allowed average is 1.28; starter Ronald Wattereus had compiled a microscopic 0.23 mark and three shutouts. Wattereus has been out with a sprained left ankle and is listed as questionable.
The Red Bulls' strong start to the season is encouraging, yet fans aren't responding. RBNY's per-game home average is 9,765, only 45 more per game than bottom-feeder Kansas City. But they are drawing 14,133 away from the Meadowlands, and there will certainly be a loud house Wednesday night. On the road, RBNY is 1-1-2, with the victory coming in Dallas April 26.
Following this week's road dates, the Red Bulls get a return home game with the Wizards, then hit the road again for three more in Columbus, Houston, and Colorado.
At that point, exactly halfway through the season, much more will be known about this team, such as whether Mathis can stay the course (he leads the league in ejections with two and has been red-carded eight times since joining MLS in 1998), which keeper will take the starting jersey, and how many games Coach Bruce Arena can squeeze out of Claudio Reyna. He's played five of nine so far.
Arena also has a few holes to fill against Toronto. Regular outside backs Hunter Freeman and Todd Dunivant are still hobbled. Ex-Red Bull right back Marvell Wynne and O'Brien will certainly relish the opportunity to attack Dave van den Bergh and Seth Stammler down their flank.
Central defender Jeff Parke had to leave the Wizards game with a tight hamstring but he's projected to start alongside Carlos Mendes. His replacement, Taylor Graham, couldn't keep up with hat-trick hero Eddie Johnson, but not many players have been able to do that the past few weeks. Jeff Cunningham and Dichio will be tough to contain for 90 minutes.
Reyna is expected back in the lineup. His duties will be mainly defensive, yet if he can find quickster Dane Richards with passes when the ball turns over, there will be chances for Juan Pablo Angel and Co. Free kick opportunities are likely, since TFC is second in MLS in fouls committed (172).
But after TFC hosts the Red Bulls and Dallas on Sunday, it heads out on a five-match road trip to accommodate the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and it knows how precious are home points at this stage of the season.
Strap yourself in to watch this one. It'll be fierce.
Dynamo departures defending champ
Striker Brian Ching may be mired in a slump, yet his departure to join the U.S. team for the Gold Cup couldn't be more poorly timed for Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. Dwayne DeRosario, who despite his struggles leads the Dynamo with three goals, is with the Canadian team, and Ching hasn't scored since netting two - his only two goals this season - against Colorado a month ago.
Houston did break out of its scoring malaise sufficiently to beat state rival FC Dallas, 2-1, on Sunday, but still its scoring output of seven goals in nine games is tied with Real Salt Lake for the worst in MLS.
Midfielder Ricardo Clark scored the equalizer with a blast from just inside the penalty area, and his pass to Joseph Ngwenya produced the winning goal. Clark's first goal and second assist of the season came just prior to his departure for the national team. He and Ching are Houston's two representatives and they will leave big holes.
Paul Dalglish sparked the team's run last year after arriving from Scotland by scoring a pair of goals in the regular season and adding two more in the playoffs. He's hobbled by a sprained ankle, though, so much of the burden remains on Ngwenya, acquired from Columbus in exchange for Alejandro Moreno, unless Kinnear can add a player.
Richard Mulrooney, who has been playing right back since being acquired from Toronto, slid in alongside Clark against Dallas in the absence of DeRosario. But if Houston gets hit by injuries or suspensions in the middle, its options are few.
Houston has cap space and roster slots available. It also has its DP slot, which could be used in a trade as well as directly on a player. Kinnear has shown a preference in the past for "proven commodities", players with experience and success in MLS. According to a source, Carlos Ruiz is not on Kinnear's radar screen.