The Throw-In: Forget Columbus-LA ... San Jose-Toronto is THE game

 

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When undefeateds collide. It really doesn’t need an explanation. That’s why Saturday’s Columbus vs. LA matchup is mouth-watering, an early signifier of who the true frontrunner is in MLS.

After this weekend, someone should be unbeaten no more. But this column isn’t about the Battle of the Best—let’s not forget, the Supporters’ Shield winner has gone on to win MLS Cup only five times in the 14-year history of the league.

That’s why I’ve got my eye on another match, one that’s flying under the radar right here in my own backyard: San Jose vs. Toronto.

“LA is always going to get the fanfare and Columbus has won a championship recently,” San Jose defender Jason Hernandez told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week, “so they deserve it in that respect. But we have no problem being second fiddle to those guys.”

But there’s nothing second-fiddle about this matchup. Based on their performance a third of the way into this season, both these teams could be headed to the playoffs for the first time in their existence. Let’s say that again, this time a little slower for emphasis.

Both teams could be headed to the playoffs.

No, it’s not a joke. San Jose and Toronto—both recent punching bags for the rest of MLS—are now arguably the hottest teams in the league.

After leaking goals last season like a sieve, the Earthquakes are one of the best defensive units in MLS—their seven goals allowed is tied for third-best. And they’re on a four-game unbeaten streak, tied for second in the Western Conference and playing some of the fundamentally best soccer in the league.

Toronto, a cellar-dweller in their first two seasons and an eventual flop last fall, almost looked like they were going to implode early in Preki’s tenure in March. Now the Reds are self-assured, on the same page and capably moving the ball. And on a four-game unbeaten streak of their own and in third in the Eastern Conference.

You’re all in a tizzy over the Crew and Galaxy? I’m looking at this showdown between two teams who have their eyes on becoming dark-horse contenders this fall.

“I agree that this is a game that’s flying under the radar,” said Toronto defender Nick Garcia, who also spent a season-and-a-half in San Jose. “These are two good teams that need points.”

How on earth did this happen? How could perennial doormats all of a sudden become twin turnaround stories? Let’s be fair: We’ve still got five months until the playoffs begin. But for both squads, this early success has been several years in the making.

Frank Yallop and John Doyle took a cement truck worth of lumps for the Quakes’ first two seasons since their rebirth. They were a classic expansion team, trying to find the right combo of players through drafting, the discard pile and the roulette wheel of international talent. Injuries took their toll—as did some bad gambles.

But now, finally, San Jose have their deepest squad yet. They’re solid at almost every position and have a collection of starters and substitutes who are versatile and capable. So Arturo Alvarez and Ike Opara aren’t available? In step guys like Chris Wondolowski and Bobby Burling – both mid-career journeyman who finally found their niche.

Airtight in the back and dynamic up front. Two classic wingers in re-motivated Bobby Convey and USL lifer Joey Gjertsen, allowing Yallop’s classic 4-4-2 to be run seamlessly. (No offense to Darren Huckerby, fantastic in his short stay in MLS, but not exactly a wing player, either.) These aren’t your Quakes of last season.

“We put the work in and the results speak for themselves,” said Hernandez. “But in no way are we too high on ourselves. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing.

What about Toronto? Sure, those fans just keep coming and coming. Amazing, considering some of the embarrassments of the first three years.

The ignominy of being dumped out of the inaugural Canadian Championship by Montreal in 2008, bookended by back-to-back last-place finishes in the Eastern Conference. Last fall’s debacle of being resoundingly thumped from the race on the final day of the season, 5-0 by the lowly Red Bulls.

Now, Preki-ball has come to town. And despite some early soap-opera side plots and controversial cuts and trades, it looks like the Reds are finally buying into the hard-line coach’s system.

Recalled Garcia, “From Day 1, he told us, ‘You’re either going to like it or you’re not – If you don’t get on board, you won’t be here.’ It’s not like a magical potion, but he’s been making sure there’s a discipline there we’ve been lacking. Our young guys may never have had it before.”

And discipline is what they’re getting. When TFC play well, they comprehend each other’s roles perfectly, with a clear idea of positioning and the understanding that they can’t overextend. (Well, all except Dwayne De Rosario, who’s better without constraints – and Preki knows it).

That’s how Toronto took advantage of a disorganized Fire side. It’s how they earned a point in LA. And how they’re now a team that, hopefully, will not lose focus down the stretch.

So far, it’s the same story in the Quakes’ corner. And both teams are eager to prove they belong in that upper tier of MLS powerhouses.

So go ahead and keep your glitzy battle of frontrunners at Crew Stadium on Saturday. I’ll be at Buck Shaw Stadium, looking for my upset special in this year’s title race. If one of these teams is on the pitch at BMO Field on November 21, I’ll resist the urge to say I told you so.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.