Toronto FC rides into Real Salt Lake sleek and shiny

By Ridge Mahoney

Things can change quickly in MLS, yet the contrasts between Toronto FC’s last visit to Utah and its Saturday encounter with Real Salt Lake are stark.

When RSL pulled out a last-second victory, 3-2, in April 2012, sub Jonny Steele scored in stoppage time to justify the decision of head coach Jason Kreis to send him on. Among the tactical decisions made by TFC head coach Aron Winter that day was to replace winger Terry Dunfield with a young Eucadoran, Joao Plata, in an attempt to erase a 2-1 deficit.

Homegrown defender Doniel Henry equalized with his first goal as a professional, but Steele’s late strike condemned TFC to a seventh straight defeat, which tied a league record for the worst start to a season. An own goal by Richard Eckersley and a missed penalty kick off the foot of Designated Player Torsten Frings piled on the misery for Winter and his players.

Today RSL is different. TFC is nearly unrecognizable.

RSL shed several veterans after the 2012 season and bade farewell to Kreis in December after an agonizing penalty-kick loss to Sporting Kansas City in MLS Cup. Steele is Red Bull. Former assistant Jeff Cassar has taken over for Kreis, who resigned to become the head coach of New York City FC. Plata returned to MLS after a stint in his native Ecuador and signed with RSL.

As just about everyone knows, TFC is completely transformed. Steered by second-year head coach Ryan Nelsen, it rides into Rio Tinto sleek and shiny, nothing like the tarnished wreck most fans recall of the first seven seasons. Buttressed by a solid framework, DPs Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley are the engines of a club that is already drawing envious stares. TFC’s 2-0-0 record includes a huge game on the road, a 2-1 defeat of Seattle on the second weekend of the 2014 season. More than 22,000 raucous fans packed BMO Field for the home opener last week and celebrated a 1-0 victory over D.C. United that wasn’t nearly that close.

The Sounders game presented certain obstacles -- good opposition, artificial turf, a huge and loud crowd -- and so will the game Saturday at Rio Tinto and a match next weekend at Columbus Crew Stadium. No MLS team is being as closely scrutinized as TFC, which is what Nelsen in preseason told his players would be the case. Regardless of venue or opposition, pressure -- and questions about it -- will be the norm.

“I do find it strange because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, the pressure’s on now,’” said Nelsen whose team is already one-third of the way towards the six league victories it accumulated in 2013. “But in all honestly, you should have seen what we inherited last year. To turn that around in one year would be a grand achievement for any club. If you ask any coach, 100 percent of them would take the situation we’re in now.”

Acquiring Defoe, Bradley and two Brazilians -- forward Gilberto, the third DP, and goalkeeper Julio Cesar -- triggered storms of media coverage and drove fans to quickly snap up the allotment of 17,000 season tickets. Yet Nelsen also negotiated moves of less stature but critically important to strengthen the team around them. MLS veterans Jackson and Justin Morrow were signed, and native son Dwayne DeRosario was welcomed back.

Nelsen points to RSL and Sporting Kansas City as examples of teams that needed two or three years to blossom. Neither signed the likes of Defoe or Bradley, of course, but one aspect of MLS is that big stars don’t guarantee success, as the Fire and MetroStars/Red Bulls, among others, have shown. The difference is that RSL and SKC were able to establish a strong core of players and make adjustments each season; TFC has only recently constructed the spine of future seasons as well as the present.

Former Quake Morrow has joined centerbacks Steven Caldwell and Henry on a back line that is looking less rickety and more reliable. Jonathan Osorio quietly played a very solid rookie season in 2013 and is relishing the tutelage of Bradley. In TFC’s two games this season, Spaniard Alvaro Rey has nearly surpassed his contributions in 13 matches last year.

“Normally it takes two years or it takes three,” says Nelsen of lifting a team out of the doldrums. Portland’s transformation under Caleb Porter last year is an exception. “If you ask the Kansas Citys and the Real Salt Lakes, when they were in bad times, it took two years. I think Jason Kreis won only six games his first year and 10 the second before he actually got somewhere and it’s the same with [SKC head coach] Peter [Vermes]. It just takes that amount of time."

(Nelsen is spot on. Kreis was 6-13-7 after taking over for John Ellinger early in the 2007 season and went 10-10-10 in 2008 prior to winning the 2009 title.)

“All of the players are going to be around for a few years," Nelsen added, "so we can start building the squad. We had to do what we had to do last year, to put ourselves in a position where we’ve got a squad that we’re not going to move. Nobody’s going to come and go from there for years now. Sure, older guys like Dwayne and Steven will eventually leave, so there will be tweaks, small little changes.

Though it comes so early in the season, a trip to RSL is an excellent measuring stick for TFC. In its three league games to date, RSL has beaten and tied the Galaxy, and also tied San Jose, 3-3. It has a strong core of keeper Nick Rimando, defender Nat Borchers, midfielders Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil and Ned Grabavoy, playmaker Javier Morales and striker Alvaro Saborio.

“It’s not an easy stadium to play in,” said Henry told Toronto FC TV. “Salt Lake has always been a good team, year after year, with the amount of players they can keep in Salt Lake. Their chemistry’s great.”

Of the last trip to Rio Tinto, he said: “It was a very open game, back and forth. We did lose but I know I’m going in there with vengeance, trying to get three points and help my team.”

How Defoe fares against the RSL back line and the Beckerman-Bradley duel will be the main talking points of the match, but for Nelsen and TFC, coping with all the elements of RSL’s vaunted style -- cohesive defense, possession under pressure, combination play, the ever-evolving diamond midfield – in a hostile environment is an intriguing progress report.

An injury suffered by Plata last week against the Galaxy has sidelined him, yet there are many more storylines to savor. Beating Seattle knocked one monkey off TFC’s back, but another has jumped aboard.

“To win there really shows the club has come a long way,” said Henry. “The more games we can win on the road, the better for the season and the supporters here. With the guys in the changing room and the confidence we are holding on our back, we’re walking into every place thinking we can get those three points.”

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