After a bumpy preseason, Toronto FC has rolled through its first six games.
Toronto (4-1-1) leads Major League Soccer in scoring, averaging three goals a game. Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo has been a revelation, making and scoring beautiful goals. The team that went from MLS Cup champion in 2017 to 19th over all in 2018 is feeling good about itself again.
While defence remains an issue – TFC ranks 20th in the 23-team league in conceding 1.83 goals a game – the high-octane offence has helped make up for the flaws in the back.
After a season in which it picked up just 1.06 points a game, Toronto is averaging 2.17 this year.
But with star striker Jozy Altidore sidelined by a hamstring injury, Toronto’s depth will be tested on Saturday when the Portland Timbers (1-5-1) visit.
Jordan Hamilton, who scored two goals off the bench in last week’s 4-3 win over visiting Minnesota United, would seem the logical choice to replace Altidore up front. Teenager Ayo Akinola and Terrence Boyd are other options.
A clearly riled Altidore, who leads the team with five goals, spoke out after the Minnesota game – accusing team president Bill Manning of letting his ego get in the way in denying a trainer associated with departed star forward Sebastian Giovinco access to the team.
It is a measure of Toronto’s even keel this season that the controversy seemingly disappeared after a face-to-face between Manning and Altidore, with the president assuring his star that trainer Giuseppe Gueli was back in the fold, with an expanded mandate.
Toronto players have consistently talked up the new team vibe.
“There’s a lot of positivity in the group, a lot of freshness,” fullback Justin Morrow said. “It feels like a new project, which is great. It feels like we’ve turned a new page.”
“We have a fresh mentality this year,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio echoed.
The team has come together after some high-profile departures. Giovinco (Saudi Arabia) and playmaker Victor Vazquez (Qatar) left for greener pastures during training camp. Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel exited after a preseason bust-up with coach Greg Vanney.
Enter Pozuelo, after prolonged negotiations with Belgium’s KRC Genk. The 27-year-old attacking midfielder has four goals and five assists in four appearances for Toronto.
At first blush and by all accounts, the Spaniard is a no-fuss, no-muss professional with little ego. His family is now here, meaning he is happily trailed by a couple of mini-Pozuelos after games.
Thanks to renovations to Providence Park, the Timbers have been forced into the role of road warriors. They will have played 12 games away from home before playing host to Los Angeles FC on June 1.
Portland ended a five-game losing streak last weekend, defeating Columbus Crew SC 3-1 at Mapfre Stadium.
“I think they’ve played better and done better than their results suggest,” Vanney said. “It’s not easy on the road. … We think they’re a good team, good players.
“They’ve got guys all over the field who are capable,” he added. “We’ve got to be smart defensively. Again, we’ve got to be better than we have [been] in the last couple of weeks. It’s not so much that we’ve given away a ton of chances, it’s that we’ve given away soft goals. That’s got to stop.
“We can’t keep digging ourselves out of these situations. That’s not a formula for success long-term, either.”
On the plus side, key defender Drew Moor is available after missing the past two games with an adductor injury.
Portland ranks 15th in the league in scoring, averaging 1.29 goals a game. It is 23rd on defence, yielding 2,57 goals a game.