Check out the latest episode of the Fire Confidential Live podcast with guest Joshua Kloke of The Athletic Toronto before diving into the match preview.
What Are They All About? Chicago Fire
Get it together. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire continued their recent road form by losing 3-0 in Montreal. In a performance that was plagued by injuries, a clear lack of squad depth, and a seeming absence of chemistry among the Fire team, Montreal dominated all of the statistics that mattered and sent Chicago home with a lot to think about. Every year we get to a match that is more about Chicago and their shortcomings than it is about the opposition, and that moment is here once again as the Fire welcome Toronto to Toyota Park this Saturday (7:00 CT on CSN Chicago).
The clash will pit first place Toronto against a Chicago side that has now firmly slipped into third and is as close to sixth as they are to the summit. Worse yet, by Friday evening the New York Red Bulls could be even on points with the Fire with a game in hand and arguably an easier final stretch of the season. Saying that Saturday is a must win match for Chicago is an understatement. They owe it to the supporters, they owe it to the city that has believed in them this season, and above all, as a group of players that are better than what they have showed of late, they owe it to themselves.
This is the second meeting between these two sides this season after Toronto took full points at BMO Field in April, and it will be the last chance for Chicago to directly gain ground on the Supporters Shield leaders. Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez have themselves alluded to the weight of this clash by saying that it is the most important fixture of the year and the latter admitting that TFC serves as the measuring stick for success in MLS 3.0. Will the Process prove itself to be on track or will it be business as usual for Chicago? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Toronto Form Guide (last five league matches): W-D-W-D-D
Previous Result: A 4-1 home victory over Portland.
Formation: 3-5-2; Bono; Zavaleta, Hagglund, Mavinga; Hasler, Delgado, Bradley, Vazquez, Morrow; Altidore, Giovinco
Strengths: Holding a four-point lead at the top of the standings in a season that has been tight across the board is no easy task. Having been disappointed in last season’s MLS cup final, Toronto has used that stumbling block as motivation for this campaign and is looking for a sure bet to finally put some silverware in their trophy cabinet. When we previewed this fixture in April we discussed Toronto’s impenetrable back line, Greg Vanney’s ability to instill a winning mentality in the locker room, and the addition of Victor Vasquez as positives. Those three have been the bedrock of Toronto’s success with only Sporting Kansas City conceding less goals in the league. Vanney’s continued bid for coach of the year, and Vasquez’s five goals and ten assists on the season echoe our earlier thoughts. Let’s see where else they might succeed.
I Got Ninety-Nine Problems, Well, Actually, I Don’t: In a stretch where everything seems to be going terribly for Chicago in terms of form, injuries, squad depth, tactical decisions, and scheduling, Toronto has had some smooth sailing of late. However, this cannot be boiled down to pure luck but is rather a product of due diligence on the part of Toronto’s front office. The squad depth available to Greg Vanney is not only plentiful and talented, but the league’s highest payroll has clicked in a way that almost seems too good to be true. For example, Toronto’s 4-1 thrashing of a good Portland side this past weekend was orchestrated by a side missing three of its regular starters. This depth was especially highlighted by the fact that none of the four goals were scored by Giovinco, Altidore, or Vasquez, a fact that is not surprising given that fourteen different players have scored for Toronto FC this season.
The MLS campaign is one that is long and arduous and teams often live and die by their ability to stay healthy or find adequate replacements when rotating the squad. Chicago’s midweek match showed that Rodriguez and Paunovic have a lot to learn when it comes to squad building. They must be congratulated on securing the services of Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Nemanja Nikolic–after nearly a decade of not spending money on higher end players–but their failure to secure adequate defensive depth and the play making services of Juan Quintero were painfully evident on Wednesday. Vanney has managed minutes for his youngsters in a way that has prepared them to play at the highest level and the leadership present in players like Bradley, Vasquez, Giovinco, Altidore, Morrow, Beitashour, and Moor allows room for error in a way that thrusting Jonathan Campbell and Christian Dean into a center back partnership does not.
Canadian Passports Make Everything Easier: Toyota Park is not an easy place to play by any stretch of the imagination. However, Toronto enters this fixture on a six-match unbeaten streak that includes three away fixtures. The truth of the matter is that TFC will head south of the border knowing that they have accrued seventeen road points this season, more than anyone else in the league. They have also only been held scoreless in one of those away losses (a bizarre display against New England) and will be eager to test a Chicago back line that is depleted through injury. Worse yet, they enter into a hostile environment knowing that a draw is not the worst result in the world. This is further backed up by the comfort that they have only conceded twenty-four goals on the season and they’ll be playing against a side that has failed to unlock stubborn defenses.
Flipping the Switch: Perhaps the scariest strength of this Toronto side is their ability to start playing cohesively and effectively at a moment’s notice. Their encounter with Portland last weekend was scoreless at half time with the statistics fairly even between the two sides. Whatever Vanney did or said at half time was taken seriously as TFC put three goals into Portland’s net within the first half hour of the second half. They eventually put up four unanswered tallies after Giovinco and Vasquez started to distribute in ways that hadn’t been visible up until that point. Their match away to DC two weeks ago had a similar vibe as the hosts dominated the first half hour of play, including a sixth minute tally. Toronto held 75% of the possession after that point and barraged Bill Hamid’s net with fourteen shots, all but two of which occurred after the thirty-minute mark. It will only take a moment to end Chicago’s Supporters Shield hopes, but Toronto’s quality makes it almost inevitable that they will find a window of opportunity in front of Toyota Park’s largest ever soccer crowd.
Weaknesses: In April, we discussed Giovinco’s lack of productivity and seeming absence on the field, injury woes, and a strange tendency to switch off in crucial moments of matches as weaknesses for this Toronto side. While they are not the numbers we have come to expect from the Italian, Giovinco has gone on to tally eleven goals and six assists this season, and his underperformance has been masked by Vasquez’s superb debut season. While Nick Hagglund and Benoit Cheyrou are on the injury list, the aforementioned squad depth alleviates that. Lastly, TFC’s mentality simply cannot be questioned over the last two months. They are steam rolling their way to the top of the league and they look unstoppable. We hope you aren’t expecting much from us here but we’ll give it a go anyway.
Go at Mavinga: Although TFC’s backline has been impeccable all season, the moments in which they have struggled have often come on the back of Chris Mavinga’s mistakes. The 6’1” center back was acquired from Rubin Kazan in the offseason and was meant to serve as a replacement for the shortcomings of Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund. His adjustment to the league has not been ideal and signs of why the twenty-six-year-old has featured for eight teams in his young career are coming to the surface. For one, his spatial awareness when facing teams on the counter seems to be non-existent.
In the loss against Dallas in July, Mavinga was to blame for all three of Dallas’ tallies. With Vanney opting to push his wingbacks up the field, Mavinga seems to drift aimlessly into the space left behind by them. It took two passes for Dallas to unlock the Toronto defense on their fourth minute goal. A long ball to Urruti out of the back was cut back Roland Lamah to tap in while Mavinga was caught in no man’s land between two advancing FCD players. An almost identical long ball was played to Lamah in the twenty-first minute with Mavinga struggling to keep up and getting turned onto the wrong side of the ball before the Belgian notched his second of the match. The nail in the coffin came when Michael Barrios went one v. one against Mavinga as the Frenchman left him with acres of space to make a deadly pass to Urruti who didn’t need a second invitation to slot home.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that Schweinsteiger and McCarty will need to find enough space to play diagonal balls in between the wingbacks and the space afforded by Mavinga for Accam and Solignac to run onto. If there is any chance of the Fire to take all three points in this one they will need to take a page out of Oscar Pareja’s book and exploit those gaps.
Score Early: While we are aware that it is not a simple matter, if Chicago can score the opening goal they are statistically more likely to win the match and are almost guaranteed they will not lose. Toronto has only won one of the matches in which they have conceded the first goal this season (a twenty-eighth minute penalty by Higuain in May was overturned by a Ricketts double late in the match). If Chicago can channel some of those early season performances that saw them score in the opening minutes of the match, they might just get their season back on track.
Prediction: We’re not sure what to say here. This Chicago side is truly depleted at the moment. They seem to have lost not only personnel, but also belief in the matches since the Gold Cup break. The Process hangs by a thread, but we’ve been drinking the Kool Aid since day one of this season. A sold-out Toyota Park, the desperation of salvaging a project, and a bit of MLS luck that has not gone the Fire’s way in the past will push them over the edge. Chicago 2-1 Toronto. Accam scores in the opening minutes, Altidore levels it, and Nikolic resurrects his form from the dead to bury a ninety-eighth minute winner. That’s the Chicago way.