Toronto FC vs Vancouver Whitecaps: What to watch for in this all-Canadian matchup

MLS Unities - 2020 - Supporting Frontlines - Jozy

Toronto FC are hands-down the giants in Canadian soccer. And with reason: They’ve won an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield, seven Canadian Championships, they’ve reached a Concacaf Champions League final and they’ve even been named the best team in MLS history.

It's no wonder the Vancouver Whitecaps are such lopsided underdogs by the oddsmakers in their Tuesday night regular season match at BMO Field in Toronto (8 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in USA, TSN in Canada). But fans who are familiar with this matchup know it's a lot more evenly matched than it might seem if you don't count the Canadian Championship, where Toronto have knocked out Vancouver on all five occasions, including four finals. But when it comes to MLS play, Vancouver are undefeated in their last three trips to Toronto, winning the last two (2-1 in 2018 and 4-3 in 2016). The all-time MLS series is tied 4W-4L-2D (16 Vancouver goals, 17 Toronto goals).

The stakes are also greater than any previous regular season match. In addition to regular season points, it's the first of six all-Canadian matches for each club that could lead to a Canadian Championship and a Concacaf Champions League berth. So the motivation will not be lacking for either side.

And Toronto vs. Vancouver never disappoints. This series has always found a way to provide rich moments that we still talk about years later: the Eric Hassli volley that was up for best goal in the world, Will Johnson breaking his leg to score a cup-winning goal, the middle finger photo and the famous Darren Mattocks leap.

Why not another tonight? Here are five things to watch for:

How many minutes for Jozy?

With new 20-year-old forward sensation Ayo Akinola listed as questionable – and Toronto head coach Greg Vanney did not sound at all confident like he’d play – Jozy Altidore gets the start after gradually easing his way into form at the MLS is Back Tournament.

Patrick Mullins would be the alternative off the bench and he has shown that he can score.

Whitecaps get their starters back

It was one of the big stories of the MLS is Back Tournament that the Whitecaps advanced to the knockout round while missing a host of star players including big offseason signing Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero, Andy Rose and the influential Tosaint Ricketts

Montero didn't travel to Toronto, but Cavallini (aka El Tanque or “The Tank”) is the name to key on here. The forward didn’t get a goal in the first two games of the season, but he had two strong performances and with a little bit of luck he would’ve claimed the headlines. He can expose what was a shaky Toronto backline in Orlando.

Vancouver will get their looks

Speaking of that Toronto defense: The Reds played some beautiful, free-flowing attacking soccer last year and they replicated it in Orlando with Alejandro Pozuelo and Pablo Piatti showing an uncanny understanding. They’re fun to watch. But the Orlando tournament also showed that opponents can get goals against Toronto.

TSN analyst Steven Caldwell broke it down on ‘Caps Primetime (21:00 mark):

”It’s their vulnerability,” Caldwell said about Toronto's defense. “They’re a team that like to have the ball and go forward and like to dominate possession and by doing that they like to press high and win the ball back quickly. They’ve pushed the line up from say July [2019] onwards to the MLS Cup run last season.

"So that line is higher. Why is that a problem? Because [Omar] Gonzalez doesn’t like to play a high line, does he? So you’ve got Auro or Richie Laryea on the right really high [at right back] and you’ve got Gonzalez [at right center back] isolated and vulnerable when he’s up too much. Down the sides has been a big problem through Orlando. So I think that’s a conundrum and dilemma for Greg Vanney. What’s the line engagement? How high do they want Gonzalez and [Chris] Mavinga to be? And how good can they be with the ball?”

'Keeper phenom starts

After the injury to starter Maxime Crepeau and the family tragedy that struck backup Bryan Meredith, 21-year-old third-string Thomas Hasal got the call for the Whitecaps’ final matches at the MLS is Back Tournament and he stole the show, finishing as a candidate for the Golden Glove.

Manager Marc Dos Santos confirmed that Hasal will get the chance to continue his shutout streak against Toronto FC.

"When the season started on paper Max was the No. 1 and Bryan No. 2," Dos Santos explained. "But as a coach you also have to be fair and that's something that Bryan understands that Thomas came in and in those two games he did very well for himself. We also have to be very fair as coaches when a situation like that comes up. Today the one who is going to start is Thomas." 

How do 'Caps replace Inbeom Hwang?

The Whitecaps aren’t as shorthanded as they were in Orlando, but they did transfer skillful midfielder Inbeom Hwang away to Russian club Rubin Kazan. How do they replace his passing and vision in midfield? Dos Santos was direct when asked by Michael McColl on The AFTN Soccer Show whether he had the quality and difference makers in midfield that the team needs going forward. “No, not right now,” he said.

When it comes to central midfield, the 'Caps coach has made it clear that it will be Leonard Owusu and Russell Teibert teaming up, while Janio Bikel will challenge for a starting spot when he's back from injury.

Inbeom Hwang also played behind the forward during the MLS is Back Tournament. Dos Santos revealed that for that role he’ll be relying on one of Yordy Reyna, Theo Bair, Tosaint Ricketts or rookie Ryan Raposo to link the midfield with the attack behind the center forward Cavallini. Reyna gets the nod on Tuesday night.