You wouldn't think that a team in just its second year of existence would have too many story lines against a particular opponent, but when it comes to the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC has plenty.
Whether it is Mo Johnston, the former Red Bulls head coach who is now in charge of building the Toronto FC team; Amado Guevara, the former MLS MVP who was dealt away by the Red Bulls more than a year ago only to wind up in Toronto; or Marvell Wynne and Kevin Goldthwaite, two defenders traded away by their teams a year ago only to show great form in 2008, there will be plenty of subplots when these teams meet on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
More important than any of the subplots is the fact that both teams will be desperate for a win to try to keep pace in the loaded Eastern Conference. Toronto is riding a three-match winning streak while the Red Bulls will look to close the gap with East leaders Columbus and Chicago.
Five story lines to follow
1. Amado Guevara faces Red Bulls
When the Red Bulls traded Guevara to Chivas USA for a designated player slot, Guevara figured to be playing for former head coach Bob Bradley. Things didn't quite work out that way. Bradley was hired as U.S. national team head coach and Guevara was left to bump heads with new coach Preki, who tried to trade him to Toronto after growing tired of him (Guevara blocked the trade and promptly went to Honduras instead).
After spending a year playing for CD Motagua, Guevara has made a triumphant return to MLS, where he has helped TFC build a three-game winning streak. Now Guevara will have his chance to show the Red Bulls they made a mistake by trading him, although the coach who traded him (Bruce Arena) was fired last fall.
"It's very special, I played four years there, it's my team in the league, I feel a love and respect," said Guevara. "It's the first time I'm going to have to play against them and it's a strange feeling because I've never played a team that I care about and respect so much."
2. Toronto's revamped attack
Two games into the MLS season, Toronto was winless and had been outscored 6-1. That was before reinforcements arrived in the form of Guevara, Laurent Robert and Rohan Ricketts. The midfield trio has given Toronto's attack a boost and allowed Toronto coach John Carver to focus more on solidifying his defense. The result is a defense that has posted two straight shutouts.
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How will that trio stack up against the Red Bulls? Ricketts has the speed to trouble Red Bulls winger Dave van den Bergh while Amado Guevara is sure to create problems for the Red Bulls' defensive midfielders. Robert and Guevara will also be looking to punish the Red Bulls if they give up any dangerous free kicks.
3. The Altidore and Angel show
After three games, the Red Bulls have yet to play Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore at the same time because of injuries. This could signal the debut for what is arguably the most dangerous strike force in the league.
Will Toronto be able to handle Angel and Altidore? TFC hasn't faced a forward tandem that good during its three-match winning streak and Toronto fans surely recall Angel's two-goal performance in last year's meeting between these teams at BMO Field (the Red Bulls won that match, 2-1).
4. The castoff defenders
Marvell Wynne and Kevin Goldthwaite were traded in separate deals last year and after mixed results in 2007, both players are off to great starts in 2008. Goldthwaite suffered through a miserable first year with the Red Bulls after being traded from Toronto, playing poorly before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He has rebounded strongly this season, emerging as the Red Bulls' best defender and putting to rest long-held suggestions that his trade to the Red Bulls for Todd Dunivant was one of the worst of 2007.
When the Red Bulls dealt Wynne early in 2007 it was seen as a shock considering Wynne was the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 and spent his rookie season as a starter. He showed some flashes of his impressive natural talent but never did find consistency. This season Wynne has been a consistent and dangerous player at right back. He is maturing as a player and could create some problems for the Red Bulls on Thursday.
5. The BMO Field advantage
Playing in a packed BMO Field is never easy and now that Toronto FC has a team as good as its crowd, winning on Toronto's home ground is going to be downright impossible. As if it isn't tough enough, the Red Bulls have a history of struggling on the road. They lost their one road game this year, a 2-0 defeat against FC Dallas, and coming into Thursday's match on short rest (having played on Sunday) isn't going to help the Red Bulls either.
Five players to watch
1. Juan Pablo Angel
When he's healthy, Angel is the best forward in MLS, not only for his finishing, but because of his ability to combine with Altidore. Toronto will have to pick one of the Red Bulls forwards to double-team and it will likely be Angel. That still might not be enough to stop him.
2. Jeff Cunningham
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The speedy Toronto forward should get his share of service from Toronto's revamped midfield and will be a handful for Red Bulls center back Jeff Parke, who has the strength and size to stand him up, but not the speed to keep up with him.
3. Amado Guevara
The leader of the Toronto attack, Guevara's tireless movement and passing vision will create problems for a Red Bulls midfield that has struggled with quality playmakers in the past. Red Bulls midfielder Seth Stammler will likely be assigned to shadow Guevara and this matchup could be the best of the game. Stammler's tenacious style and athletic ability will allow him to pester Guevara, but even that might not be enough to keep the Honduran star from creating a goal or two.
4. Jozy Altidore
The young Red Bulls forward has scored goals in two straight matches, neither of which had Angel around. Having Angel should only help, especially if Toronto tries to single-cover him. Altidore's combination of size and speed will be a handful for Jim Brennan or Tyrone Marshall, whichever defender is assigned to him.
5. Maurice Edu
With all the attention paid to the revamped Toronto attack, Maurice Edu's importance to Toronto is easily forgotten. Edu should be matched up with Claudio Reyna, at least early on, and the current U.S. national team player has the tools to make things miserable for the former U.S. national team captain. This is assuming Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio doesn't choose to drop Reyna into a deeper role in order to get him away from Edu.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.