Soccer has well and truly come back in Canada. The Canadian Premier League’s month-long tournament has kicked off in PEI, and our country’s three MLS clubs have left their Disney digs behind in favour of pitches on the northern side of the border, for now at least.
MLS has pushed forward in their bid to have as close to a full season as possible, and that means no more bubbles, matches in home markets and – for a few – even some groups of fans in the stands… no, I’m serious on that last bit. What a world we live in.
Despite the league’s gung-ho attitude towards this resumption of play, current border restrictions mean the Canadian federal government would frown upon sports teams travelling in and out of the country repeatedly. So, MLS’ stop-gap measure is to have the Whitecaps play Toronto and Montreal three times each, beginning Tuesday evening at BMO Field.
We’re about to get real familiar with our eastern rivals, and there are stakes attached to these six matches aside from just the regular season points at stake. The team with the best record at the conclusion of this round robin will play the winner of the CPL tournament, and the winner of that match will be Canada’s representative at the next CONCACAF Champions League.
The good news is that the ‘Caps should have close to a full squad for these matches, as most of the players who opted to not go to Orlando seem to be okay with going out east to play. This means we will get to see Lucas Cavallini back in action, with Tosaint Ricketts and Andy Rose also returning to reinforce the squad.
There should only be two players unfit for Tuesday, which is good to hear for a team that felt like they were falling apart at the seams health-wise by the end of the Orlando tournament. Those two players are Maxime Crépeau, who is recovering from surgery on his fractured thumb, and Janio Bikel, who will hopefully be able to feature at some point over the next few weeks.
Crépeau’s injury opened the door for Thomas Hasal, who put in a heroic performance against Kansas City in the Round of 16, making eight saves, and overall the young Canadian did not allow a goal in the 200+ minutes that he played in Orlando. He almost assuredly will slot in between the sticks against Toronto, looking to continue to take advantage of this opportunity given to him.
It will be interesting to see who plays in the back, as if Érik Godoy and Jasser Khmiri are fully fit that makes four centre-backs fighting to play, with Ranko Veselinović and Derek Cornelius coming off a clean-sheet performance against SKC. It’s safe to assume that Veselinović will start, as the Serbian showed well in Orlando, but you could make a solid case for any of the other three to see the field.
There are a couple other options besides just benching two of those four, as Godoy could replace Jake Nerwinski at right-back, or Marc Dos Santos could use the three-at-the-back formation that they lined up with against Chicago. MDS has said he wants to use a 4-4-2, but a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 could be a way to help out the midfield by pushing Ali Adnan and (likely) Nerwinski further up the pitch.
That midfield looks a little thin at the moment, as with Bikel hurt and Inbeom Hwang gone, the only proven options are Leonard Owusu, Russell Teibert, and Rose. If the ‘Caps start with a trio in the middle of the park it will almost certainly be those three, and if it’s a 4-4-2 it will be one of Teibert or Rose sitting, as Owusu was the ‘Caps’ best midfielder in Orlando.
If MDS elects for a 4-4-2, David Milinković and Cristian Dájome are the obvious picks for the wings, while Yordy Reyna is a logical choice to pair with Cavallini up top (though it was Ricketts who did so the last time the two were available). Neither Theo Bair or Ryan Raposo particularly wowed in Orlando, and they will be jostling for minutes off the bench.
Looking at the hosts, Toronto FC also crashed out of Orlando in the Round of 16, losing 3-1 to NYCFC in an insipid performance. That was their first loss of the year, so technically they are still undefeated (2-0-3) in the regular season, as the knockout matches did not count towards the overall standings.
Young dual-national striker Ayo Akinola had a breakout tournament, scoring five goals in three matches in Orlando to take the team-lead for the season. DP attacker Alejandro Pozuelo kept pace with him throughout, registering five assists to take the league-lead for 2020 so far.
Like the ‘Caps, Toronto also have a couple injuries. Rookie midfielder Ifunanyachi Achara tore his ACL in early July and is out for the rest of the season, and Justin Morrow only played in one match in Orlando due to Achilles tendinitis.
Like the rest of 2020, this MLS season has been a rollercoaster of stops, starts and general confusion, and the Whitecaps are now entering a month where they, Toronto, and Montreal will essentially be completely separate from the rest of the league. Now, more than ever, the ‘Caps have to just take this one match at a time. Let’s see how Tuesday goes.