What Are They All About? Toronto FC
A chance for momentum. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-1 to secure their first road win of the campaign. Key lineup changes, a phenomenal performance by Richard Sanchez, a wonder strike from Aleksandar Katai, and a clinical penalty finish from Nemanja Nikolic were among the factors that led to success. The three points gave the Fire a boost in the standings, elevating them to seventh, but the result will also have inflated the confidence of a side that has struggled to find an identity this season. Red Bull Arena had been a fortress prior to Chicago’s arrival so Veljko Paunovic and his charges will certainly take solace in the fact that they can perform on the road. Another trip away from Toyota Park is on the cards this weekend as the Fire head to BMO field to take on the reigning MLS Champions Toronto FC (2:00 CT on ESPN+).
It is important to note that when Chicago takes the field on Saturday they will likely be facing anything but Toronto’s best eleven. This past Wednesday the Canadian outfit lost in the CONCACAF Champions league final to Chivas Guadalajara on penalties. The talk of MLS this season, TFC was by far the favorite to win the tie and the competition. Having already beaten Tigres and Club America, arguably the best sides on the continent over the last five years, many had seen the final against Liga MX’s second to last place team as a formality. Perhaps the players bought into this mentality themselves as Toronto looked out of sorts and unable to press in their typical style as they lost the home leg last week. Toronto dug deep against Chivas in Mexico, winning the match and taking the tie to penalties on aggregate but the technical ability and clinical finishing of the Mexican players was too much for a TFC side that has made it a habit to lose in penalties.
Team captain Michael Bradley was tasked with salvaging the shoot-out after Jonathan Osorio’s penalty rattled off of the bar in the second round, but the American skied his attempt and Toronto’s hopes and dreams of becoming the first MLS side to claim the ever-coveted trophy floated off into the distance alongside the ball. The players were emotionally and physically drained after ninety minutes in ninety-degree weather at altitude, and despite Bradley and head coach Greg Vanney talking about pride in their post-match comments, coming up short was devasting to the club and certainly won’t wear off by Saturday. Toronto’s failure opens up a window of opportunity for Chicago. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
TFC Form Guide (Last Five matches across competitions): W-L-L-L-D
Previous Result: A penalty shoot-out loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the CONCACAF Champions League Final.
Formation: 4-4-2; Bono; Morgan, Bradley, van der Wiel, Auro; Vazquez, Osorio, Delgado, Hasler; Giovinco, Altidore
Strengths: Although TFC will by no means be at their best in this match and will likely be relying on their academy and TFCII players to fill out the roster, the structure of their club will ensure that Chicago is challenged nonetheless. Let’s see where they might succeed on Saturday.
Partially Built from the Ground Up: While the bulk of TFC’s success in the past few years has been attributed to their ability to sign the likes of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vasquez, etc., it is also important to note the contributions of their academy products. Both Jonathan Osorio and Ashtone Morgan started in the final on Wednesday night and performed admirably (yes, we realize Osorio gave away the ball that lead to Chivas’ goal). The bench also featured Ontario natives in Jay Chapman and Jordan Hamilton, both of which came on in the late stages of the match to keep Toronto in the tie. If Chicago thinks they’ll have it easy just because Toronto is likely to utilize fringe players, they’re in for a surprise.
Vanney’s time running the academy directly led to his promotion to the head coaching position and a uniform style has been implemented at all levels of the club, making the transition of youth players to the first team much easier. Toronto fielded six Canadian youth team players against Houston last weekend, and although they lost (the 5-1 score line was a bit flattering) the traditional flying wingbacks, no nonsense midfield, one target striker, one speedy secondary striker style was very much evident. Furthermore, in the long run, being able to rely on successfully rounding out the starting eleven with local products like TFC has done significantly eases your ability to spend elsewhere. If your precious GAM and TAM can be concentrated on bringing in proven internationals instead of haggling in MLS for squad players, then you have a formula for success. Saturday’s match will be an opportunity for some of those youngsters to give Vanney a thing or two to think about.
Get Me on The Field: The best way to cope with a devastating loss is to get right back on the field as quickly as possible, or so the saying goes. While we understand that the altitude weariness, travel distance/time, and the loss itself are all factors that must be taken into account, there is no guarantee that Vanney and TFC play the kids on Saturday. At the end of the day, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Gregory van der Viel are full internationals with a wealth of experience. The Champions League dream may be over, but the search for a consecutive MLS title is just beginning.
TFC have largely sacrificed their MLS campaign in order to give themselves the best chance for continental success, however, it may be time for them to flip the switch and begin the climb out of hibernation. They currently sit fourteen points from the pinnacle of the Eastern Conference, and although they have three matches in hand on NYCFC, they’ll need to start converting those into wins immediately if they are to mount a serious run at another Supporters Shield. Chicago cannot show up assuming that those three will not play a part in a vital interconference encounter.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day this fixture is coming at the worst possible time for TFC. They have been touted as the best ever MLS side in recent months but in the metric of trophies, they have not achieved more than other sides before them. There are a host of double winning sides in MLS history (we are not going to count a competition that features four sides—including Edmonton—as a serious piece of silverware) and Toronto’s failure at the continental level has them doubting themselves. They will likely need a readjustment period after this shock to the system and the Fire should look to capitalize on the moment. Let’s see where they might struggle.
Tape it Up and Get Out There: There are many “what ifs” floating around Toronto in the wake of their loss to Chivas, but the major one revolves around the health of the team. Despite being one of the deepest squads in MLS, Toronto entered that fixture needing to change its formation and tactics based on injuries and fitness concerns around the team. Fortunately for Chicago, Jozy Altidore’s hamstring injury late in the match and Vanney’s premature utilization of Vasquez have only lengthened the list of players unable to feature on Saturday. In addition to those two, Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund, Justin Morrow, and Chris Mavinga all missed the final and are unlikely to be ready in time for Saturday. It means that no matter who features in midfield and up top, TFC will likely have to resort to the same three center backs—Mitchell Taintor, Jason Hernandez, and Julian Dunn-Johnson—that got trounced 5-1 in Houston. Nikolic should have a field day against those three.
Carpe Agro: No matter where fans stand on the side of the “support MLS” debate in terms of wishing TFC luck in the final and sending their condolences in the wake of the loss, Chicago’s players have a job to do on Saturday. A strong showing against a good Red Bulls side cannot go by the wayside and the professional attitude of McCarty, Schweinsteiger, Kappelhof, Nikolic, etc. should come to the fore in this one. Chicago will know that they have a tough May ahead of them (six matches in four weeks including three of the top five current Supporters Shield contenders) and nothing but three points will do in this one.
Prediction: Something tells us that TFC was going to sacrifice this fixture no matter the outcome of Wednesday’s final. They’ll take a loss here, regroup, and be within touching distance of the Supporters Shield by the end of May. Chicago 3-1 Toronto. Nikolic, Schweinsteiger, and Gordon for the visitors, Tosaint Ricketts for the hosts.