What Are They All Aboot, Eh? Toronto FC
This past weekend the Chicago Fire defiantly smiled in the face of all the naysayers and those preconditioned for pessimism to march into 9th place of the Eastern Conference. An emphatic 3-0 performance against the Philadelphia Union put the Fire just six points outside of a playoff spot with at least a match in hand on the teams directly in front of them. Perhaps equally as important as the result was the clean sheet on the back of great defensive communication and an attacking cohesion even without starlet David Accam. Another stern test awaits Chicago as TFC comes to visit Toyota Park on Saturday.
Toronto comes into the match having slipped into third place on goal difference after falling to Canadian rivals Montreal Impact. Their first foray into the playoffs last season certainly taught Toronto about the importance of positioning in the standings heading into the post season and they will be looking to take a vital three points back across the border with them. However, an injury to Sebastian Giovinco has added some spice to this fixture. Toronto has only missed the diminutive Italian for two matches since his arrival to the league last season and they didn’t win either of those. Will Toronto prove that they are a one man team as the Fire surge on or will Chicago slip up yet again?
TFC (Last Five Competitive Matches): L-W-W-D-W
Previous Match: A 1-0 home loss to Montreal Impact.
Formation in Previous Match: 4-4-2 (diamond); Bono; Beitashour, Zavaleta, Moor, Morrow; Bradley, Delgado, Johnson, Osorio; Altidore, Giovinco
Strengths: Many of the strengths that we mentioned last time have become null and void with the absence of Giovinco and the recent World Cup qualifying schedule so we came up with some new ones. Some of them might surprise you so let’s take a look.
Jozy Altidore, a Man in Form: While both pundits and TFC fans have often questioned Altidore’s talent, his ability to stay fit, and his price tag, the U.S. international has once again silenced critics with his recent run of form. A brace against Trinidad and a goal against St. Vincent this past week in WC qualifying added to his recent game winners for TFC against Philadelphia and Orlando. The target forward currently sits on five goals and three assists from 16 league matches played and seems to be a consistent threat when he is fully fit.
Looking at his heat maps over the last five matches suggests that Altidore functions best in the central channel of the final third, especially when running off of the shoulder of the last defender. All three of Toronto’s most recent wins have come in matches where he has had 15 or more touches in that area. His ability to send defenders flying off of him is equally matched by his ability to put the ball just out of reach of keepers. This was on full display in the goal against Philly while his positioning qualities and timing were evident in the goal against Orlando.
TFC seemed to struggle against Montreal largely due to an inability to get Altidore on the ball in the final third. If he gets service, something not up to him personally, Altidore has shown he can make impressive runs and is clinical in his finishing. He was forced a bit too deep and a bit too wide for his liking in that match so perhaps Chicago can learn something from the tapes or perhaps Altidore can continue to shoulder responsibility in Giovinco’s absence.
Tactical Flexibility: Greg Vanney has utilized 24 different line ups this season. While this has specific negative connotations which will be addressed below, it is first and foremost a strength. Many have argued that MLS is a league that requires consistency and a great run of form down the stretch. Well, Vanney’s ability to utilize both youngsters and veterans, constantly change his lineup, and go through up and down spells all while remaining in a playoff position for a majority of the season have people questioning that assumption.
Not only is TFC able to adjust tactically (4-4-2 wide, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 5-3-2 have all been utilized), but the trust and confidence that Vanney has shown in all members of his squad has gone a long way to building belief and a sense of solidarity around the locker room. It also doesn’t hurt that there is enough depth to cover for the injuries, international duty, and fatigue shown by TFC’s three DP signings.
Vanney’s tendency has been to flood the midfield on the road so we fully expect at least two holding midfielders in his lineup. If Michael Bradley is ready to go he could pair with Will Johnson in front of a static back three. Osorio, Delgado, and Endoh could feature as the attacking midfielders and their interchange has already proven deadly against Chicago as the trio combined for an impressive 182 touches against Chicago in July.
“Even We Don’t Like Playing in Canada”: Perhaps they have gotten used to road stints due to the incessant construction at BMO field? TFC has won five matches this season on the road, only NYCFC has won more from their travels. Chicago’s twelve match unbeaten streak at home could be under threat.
Weaknesses: Everyone knows that the biggest weakness will be the absence of Giovinco on Saturday. His sixteen goals and thirteen assists speak for themselves and his leadership off the field is obvious as well. Let’s focus on a few other stumbling points.
I’m Off to Timmy Horton’s for an Iced Cap and Some Timbits: One of the most consistent aspects of TFC’s play over the last few matches has been their momentary lapses of concentration in defense. At times it’s as if the center backs aren’t even there. In the last match against Montreal, the lone goal of the encounter came off a Montreal break that saw Oduro take down a long ball and dish it off to Piatti. The play could have easily been stopped at either exchange and perhaps more worryingly, the goal came while Montreal was a man down, struggling for any sort of possession, and was being battered with shots.
Although they eventually won the match, TFC conceded an equalizer early in the second half under some equally strange defensive choices. After allowing Kevin Alston to make a deep run down the wing, the left back put in a cross which Cyle Larin lofted into the far corner. All three of TFC’s center backs seemed to be marking him and yet he found space between them. Perhaps Vanney’s tinkering of the lineup has his defenders a bit confused…
If you’re not convinced take a look at the equalizer conceded in the victory over the Union. An expertly delivered free kick from Barnetta was buried by Ken Tribbett who ran off celebrating as Jozy Altidore clearly yelled “That was YOUR guy” at Steven Beitashour. Chicago’s recently acquired ability to launch attacks through various outlets will come in handy. The more they can keep TFC’s back line guessing the better their chances at all three points.
How Aboot We Throw Some Hockey Players on the Field?: For the second consecutive meeting between these two sides Toronto is coming in somewhat depleted. The missing personnel this time around is even more devastating than the meeting in July. As mentioned previously the focal point of everything that TFC does, Giovinco, will be out for at least another week or two. Clint Irwin is still out long term and occasional starters Jay Chapman, Mark Bloom, and Ashtone Morgan will also be missing.
The hunt for international glory has also impacted Greg Vanney’s selection for Saturday’s match. Tosaint Rickettes, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Armando Cooper were all called up for their respective national teams. The first three went 90 minutes on Wednesday while Cooper rode the bench. Given Rickettes’ emotional ousting from WC qualification for the second consecutive time (in the same stadium no less), Bradley’s tired legs, and Altidore’s injury history you would have to think the trio sees limited minutes. Will TFC’s depth finally crumble? Chicago just might take advantage.
Prediction: Chicago 2-0 TFC, because why not? Like a cat with a string Chicago frolics to within touching distance of the playoffs. The goals scorers for Chicago: Solignac puts one of his 12 SOG into the net, Sean Johnson puts a clearance into the wind only to see it sail past Bono.