Paul Mariner, TFC
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: All Change in T.O.

Separated by ten days worth of practice time—plus a few roster changes—from their last league outing, the Portland Timbers return to action Wednesday when they travel to Canada to take on Toronto FC (4:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). It’ll be in many ways a rather unfamiliar opponent for the Timbers—never mind the regular changes that any team undergoes—it’s been more than a calendar year since the two sides last met. The home side will be well-rested too as their game scheduled for last Saturday at Columbus was pushed back later in August to allow Crew players to attend the funeral of former teammate Kirk Urso, who passed away recently.

All Change in T.O.
This is TFC’s sixth year in MLS, and suffice to say they've had a hard time getting things on track. Still searching for a playoff appearance, Aron Winter started his second season as the team’s sixth coach in their brief history, and was pressured into stepping down after a record 0-9 start to the season. Former English international Paul Mariner—who had been the team’s director of playing development—took over on June 7th, and has unlocked some success with the Reds: he’s overseen a five-game unbeaten run, a record three-game win streak, and overall a 4-4-4 record since taking over.

One of Mariner’s changes was adjusting from the more patient 4-3-3 system of his Dutch predecessor to a more direct 4-4-2, but there’s much more to it than that; Toronto have had to move past some serious injury problems. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, one of the top young netminders in MLS, was lost for six months to a massive leg and ankle injury in March thus throwing Milos Kocic into the fray. Forward Danny Koevermans, the team’s top scorer, tore his ACL last month and is done for the year. As a result, amongst the roster moves to fill that spot was a trade for Vancouver’s mercurial star Eric Hassli.

Missing Faces on Wednesday
But, at least for their next league game, holes seem to be opening faster than Toronto can find the dirt to fill them. Wednesday is a FIFA International Date, when—for the most part—teams are obliged to release players for national team duty, despite some MLS sides playing that day.

All told, four potential starters will be unavailable: midfield workhorse Terry Dunfield and right back Doneil Henry will play for Canada against Trinidad and Tobago; forward Ryan Johnson, who’s played every minute this year, will be with the Timbers’ Lovel Palmer as Jamaica plays El Salvador; and newly-signed center back Darren O’Dea, a needed dose of experience and command on a very young back line, will be with Ireland as they take on Serbia.

There’s also one notable injury concern right now: Henry had been playing in the place of Jeremy Hall, who through a combination of hamstring and ankle injuries, hasn’t started the last four games, and remains out another week.

Familiar Faces
Despite the long gap between meetings, there are some familiar faces on the Toronto roster—the irony being two of them won’t see the field. The aforementioned Hall was of course a Timbers player last year before being traded to Dallas for Eric Alexander; his trade from New York the day before the expansion draft made him in some ways the team’s “first MLS player.” Johnson, the ever-present forward, was an Oregon State Beaver; center back Logan Emory went to the University of Portland and played on the Timbers U-23s; and defender Ty Harden, who hasn’t played since April, is from Junction City.

Regardless of who’s out there and who’s not, these are the two teams occupying the bottom spots of their respective conference, meaning what’s left in the place of confidence and satisfaction at their league campaigns is a hunger and desperation to grab wins whenever possible. Combined with the debut of new goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, it makes this game, for me, quite interesting.