What Are They All Aboot, eh? Toronto FC
It all comes down to this. After defeating FC Cincinnati 3-2 this past Wednesday, the Chicago Fire have set themselves up to claim a three year undefeated preseason streak this Saturday. Opting to start what looks to be his preferred eleven and giving them significant minutes–an average of sixty-four minutes for the starters–Paunovic has breezed through the strenuous endeavor of playing against college teams, lower league opposition, and MLS academies to find himself on the brink of glory. Standing in their way will be a Toronto FC side coming off of its own preseason hot streak and supporters of both sides could see something close to an actual MLS match in terms of style, lineups, and intensity as this will be the last occasion to tweak things before the season gets underway next week.
In terms of preparation, Greg Vanney and his charges spent the first part of their preseason out in California playing against college sides. The third year Toronto coach made it clear that the first portion of preseason was entirely about fitness and making roster decisions as he elected to utilize trialists and fringe players for all three encounters. After sending his draft picks packing and shipping some youngsters off to TFC II (Toronto’s very own USL side), Vanney has set his focus for this week on being match ready for their MLS debut against RSL.
TFC’s last match was a victory over Minnesota–courtesy of two Giovinco goals–and they will hope to keep the momentum going when the sides meet at 2 pm in Tampa Bay on Saturday for the last matchday of the SunCoast Invitational (stream link at Chicago-Fire.com). Will TFC leave their MLS Cup final loss in the rear view mirror, or will they yet again witness an opponent lifting a trophy in front of them as Chicago secures another piece of silverware? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Formation: 3-5-2; Bono; Zavaleta, Moor, Mavinga; Beitashour, Vasquez, Bradley, Osorio, Morrow; Giovinco, Altidore
Strengths: We almost don’t know where to begin. This Toronto side looked miles ahead of their nearest Eastern Conference competitors last season. Although both New York sides finished above them in the regular season standings, Toronto looked solid throughout the year and kicked into gear when it really mattered. They embarrassed the Union and NYCFC in the post season before a hard fought battle against Montreal landed them a spot in the MLS Cup. It wasn’t the best showcase of MLS talent, but Toronto looked the better side in the encounter. Although the PK shootout loss may haunt them, it shouldn’t be a blemish on what they achieved as a unit. Let’s see where they could succeed on Saturday.
Why Change a Good Thing?: Chicago supporters will be very familiar with this TFC side as the squad is largely unchanged from the one that defeated the Fire in all three iterations of this fixture last season. The only players of note that departed in the offseason were Will Johnson (utilizing the free agency mechanism to sign with Orlando City/former coach Jason Kreis) and Mark Bloom (traded to hometown team Atlanta United)–neither of which really featured frequently on the pitch.
In terms of additions, there will be two new faces in the side as Vanney pats himself on the back for a successful window. The first signing, Chris Mavinga, comes with a storied background. The Congolese international defender came up through the PSG Youth Academy before signing with Liverpool. Although he never made his debut on the pitch there he would see time on loan at Genk before signing for Rennes and then spending four years at Rubin Kazan. His upbringing through those two classic academies means that his technical skill on the ball and decision making should be strengths for the twenty-five year old. It looks like Vanney will utilize him to replace Nick Hagglund in the lineup as his speed and experience outweigh that of the Ohio native who was arguably the weakest link in the TFC back line (Eastern Conference final goal aside). The fact that they’ve strengthened defensively after finishing last year with the second stingiest defense in the league–behind Colorado– should be scary to opponents.
The second signing, Victor Vazquez, is one that many pundits have circled to be a potential newcomer of the year. The Barcelona native attacking midfielder came up through the academy with the likes of Pedro, Thiago, Giovani dos Santos, Bojan, and Sergio Busquets, all under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. While he only featured once for Barca’s first team–a UEFA Champions league match against Shaktar Donetsk–his ability on the ball and leadership qualities saw him move to Club Brugge. He spent five seasons there as a permanent fixture on the team sheet (earning the captaincy) and would finish his time in Belgium by earning the player of the year award in 2015. Despite interest from Vanney and TFC in 2016, Vazquez would elect to move to Cruz Azul in Liga MX, a decision that did not pan out as injuries and internal politics saw him relegated to the bench. Unhappy with his time in Mexico, he will look to MLS as a turning point in his career, he is still just thirty but will need to prove to himself and others that he is able to perform consistently at a high level.
Vazquez will likely replace Armando Cooper or Jonathan Osorio in the lineup as his experience and skill level will allow those two to continue to learn their trade through managed minutes. They looked raw at times and he should provide a bit of stability in midfield. Ultimately the Vasquez addition seems to put many of the squad members in their preferred roles. It looks as if Michael Bradley will permanently play the holding position and not be asked to juggle tasks (one of his struggles last season) and Giovinco will have some creative responsibility taken off of his shoulders. While the Atomic Ant has taken MLS by storm, many onlookers have forgotten that he prefers the withdrawn striker role over being a creative outlet.
Sweet as Maple Syrup: For the sake of brevity we’ll be concise. The overlapping fullbacks that caused nightmares for opposition, the calming presence of Clint Irwin, the raw energy of the Canadian youngsters, the goal threat provided by Altidore, etc. are all still there. We fully expect TFC to be at the top of the East this season.
Weaknesses: Preseason or not, this is one of the most difficult sections we’ve had to do. There is very little that TFC has done wrong recently. Yes, they have a history of failure, late collapse, and falling short, but they seem to have remedied that under the guiding hand of Vanney. Let’s take a crack at this anyway.
Goal Scoring: Toronto finished the regular season with fifty-one goals scored. Aside from Montreal that was the lowest total of any playoff positioned team in the East. Giovinco had a slight slump from the year before as injuries and uncharacteristic misses (he hit the post 9 times) saw him finish with seventeen goals, five shy of his 2015 tally and seven shy of golden boot winner Bradley Wright Phillips. Altidore notched ten goals, also falling short of his thirteen goal 2015 tally. The next closest contributor was Justin Morrow with five tallies. Again, TFC should not be overly concerned but questions remain about goal contributions if Jozy and Seba are injured or having an off day. Vanney may have addressed the issue with the Vazquez signing but we would like to point out that if TFC had had a suitable forward on the bench, they might be unveiling a banner at BMO Field instead of imagining what might have been… If Chicago can take a page out of Seattle’s book and neutralize the two forwards, the match is there for them to win.
Prediction: Chicago 2-2 Toronto. The Fire continue the tradition of preseason silverware through a mechanism they are all too familiar with, tying. This will be their first real test as they complete preparations for opening day and they will pass with flying colors (by their standards). As champagne corks bounce off of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ locker room ceiling, the age old question remains: will Chicago have peaked in February?