Riding the momentum of a three-game surge, Toronto FC could have new striker Eric Hassli on the pitch Saturday to help push for a club-record fourth straight win.
The newly-acquired designated player landed in Toronto on Friday and participated in a light training session with his new teammates at the club’s practice facility at Downsview Park, but head coach Paul Mariner wouldn’t commit to using Hassli when the Reds host the Houston Dynamo at BMO Field.
“He can play (Saturday),” said Mariner. “What I don’t want to do, I don’t want to blow him up. We’ll see how he is ... and we’ll make a decision.”
The French forward, who arrived via a trade with the Whitecaps a week ago, is still working out an ankle injury suffered while playing for Vancouver on July 14 in Chicago.
“We’re very excited to have him in the club,” said Mariner. “He’s a tremendous presence when you meet him.”
The 31-year-old Hassli, who stands six foot four and is heavily tattooed, was a fan favourite in Vancouver and adds an imposing figure to Toronto’s frontline. He scored the Whitecaps’ first goal in Major League Soccer, and also registered the club’s first MLS red card.
But Hassli’s playing time dwindled this season under new Vancouver coach Martin Rennie. He only scored twice in 18 appearances, a steep decline from his 10 goals in 2011.
Hassli’s arrival comes in the wake of Toronto losing top goalscorer Danny Koevermans to injury. The Dutch international had nine goals on the season before going down in the first half of Toronto’s 1-0 win against the New England Revolution on July 14.
Koevermans tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and will miss the rest of the season, leaving a gap in the offence that Hassli will be counted on to help fill.
“Let’s be honest, when Danny went down it was a really sad moment for us all, and we wondered how we were going to replace his goals,” said Mariner.
With the team rolling on a season-high win streak — the Reds already have more MLS wins since July 11 than in their opening four months of the season — there is a concern of disrupting chemistry.
Hassli will be paired on the attack with midfielder-forward Ryan Johnson, who says he’s looking forward to the offensive combination.
“I remember him when he first came into the league, for the size that he has, his feet are so soft,” said Johnson. “For me to play with him now, it’s a great opportunity for me. And for also the team to make this playoff push. I think it can really happen and getting Hassli is a huge help in that direction.”
Mariner is looking forward to seeing how the pairing shapes up.
“They both bring different qualities,” he said. “Eric is a quintessential hold-up guy, get him in the box and I think we have people who can serve him. Ryan likes to drift to inside that left channel, so it’s almost an ideal partnership.”
Despite the recent wins, Toronto remains last in the MLS standings, tied with the Portland Timbers at 5-11-4. The Dynamo enter Saturday’s match third in the Eastern Conference at 9-5-7 and riding a six-game undefeated streak.
Houston’s top-scorer is Will Bruin, who has 10 goals on the season, but Mariner and Johnson are more concerned with playmaking midfielder Brad Davis, who is particularly dangerous on set pieces.
“My biggest worry, to be perfectly frank, is Brad Davis,” said Mariner. “Not saying he’s David Beckham, but he’s really close with his service from set pieces.”
Added Johnson: “The biggest thing for Davis is his consistency, where he delivers the ball. He’s on the money all the time, just like Beckham.”
While Johnson’s talk of a playoff push might be wishful thinking, there’s no questioning a renewed sense of optimism around the club since Mariner took the reins.
The club is 4-2-5, including a 1-1 friendly draw against Liverpool, since Mariner took over for the fired Aron Winter last month.
“He’s brought enthusiasm into the club and everyone feeds off it,” said former Canadian TFC player and current assistant coach Jim Brennan. “The staff, the players ... it’s been a joy to work under him and a breath of fresh air. He’s done a great job since coming in. The guys have been thriving off him and the results have been showing.”
Note: Toronto FC will open its latest CONCACAF Champions League campaign on Aug. 1 at home against CD Aguila of El Salvador. Toronto’s next CONCACAF game will be Aug. 28 against Mexico’s Santos Laguna, also at BMO Field.