What Are They All About? Toronto FC
Made it count. This past Wednesday, the Chicago Fire advanced to the semifinal of the US Open Cup by defeating Louisville City FC 4-0 at Toyota Park. The score line reflected Chicago’s dominance and the match could have easily ended with the hosts scoring six or seven goals against what can only be described as subpar opposition. Head coach Veljko Paunovic’s gamble of resting his senior players at the weekend in Dallas paid off as the Fire overwhelmed a Louisville side that played like amateurs in the contest. The victory ensured that Chicago will play its fifth Open Cup semifinal in the last six years, though they lost in all of those encounters. More pressingly, the Fire will return to MLS action this weekend as they take on Toronto FC at home on Saturday in the first of a back to back home and away series against the Canadians (6:00 CT on ESPN+).
Toronto enters this fixture with their own set of struggles and these two matches against Chicago could very well be their last chance to get themselves out of the slump that followed their treble winning 2017. They currently sit in tenth place of the Eastern Conference with just sixteen points from nineteen matches. They have also played four fewer games than bottom dwelling DC United who are just a point behind them. A six-point swing against Chicago would arguably put them back in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot that four or five teams are vying for, but anything less than that would doom Greg Vanney’s men to a failed campaign.
Although the squad is largely the same as the one that wrote MLS history last season, Toronto’s shortcomings in the CCL final, an aging core, and severely underperforming DPs seemingly point to failure at the end of the road. TFC would arguably need to win twelve of its remaining fifteen matches to have any chance at the playoffs. A tall task indeed. Will Chicago continue to tread water in the playoff hunt or will Toronto start a miraculous run that will be talked about for ages? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Toronto Form Guide (all competitions): W-L-D-L-L
Previous Result: A 1-0 away victory against Ottawa in the Canadian Championship semifinal.
Formation: 4-3-3; Irwin; Morgan, Zavaleta, Hagglund, Hassler; Telfer, Orsorio, Fraser; Johnson, Akinola, Chapman
Strengths: This is the second meeting between these two sides this season. They shared the points in a thrilling 2-2 encounter at BMO Field in April. Toronto’s attacking prowess came through in the match and although they have had a terrible run of results recently, scoring is not a problem for them. Let’s see where they might succeed on Saturday.
Hit Refresh: As TFC supporters lament what Michael Bradley has labeled a “just plain bad” season, they should take solace in knowing that they still have one of the most talented MLS squads on paper. Perhaps they need a team bonding getaway or a group therapy session, but if TFC can get past whatever mental blockages have hindered them from performing to their potential, they still have the ability to turn this season around. Last year’s treble winning side did not simply fall from the sky, it was the result of Tim Bezbatchenko, Bill Manning, and Greg Vanney toiling for nearly five years. The roster juggling, international flights, vision, and investment that went into this roster cannot be undone in three months. This management team and front office staff have earned some benefit of doubt and if anyone can pull this side out of the gutter, it’s them.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day, this is a Toronto side that could be at the bottom of the East by the time of kick-off on Saturday. They have leaked goals all season, lacked the leadership you would expect given the high-profile players on the roster, and have had their identity fall apart in the wake of the CCL trophy slipping through their hands. They sacrificed much of their season hoping to be the first MLS side to lift that coveted trophy and have looked frankly uninterested in playing since that loss. Let’s see where they will struggle on Saturday.
Time for Change: If the lineups from Tornto’s last five matches indicate anything it’s that there is a transition going on in the roster. Jozy Altidore hasn’t started in those encounters and his been used sparingly as a substitute due to injury (appearing just four times during this MLS campaign with just two goals), leading to rumors about a transfer to Liga MX; Ager Aketxe has left on loan to Spanish second division side Cadiz CF after a lackluster MLS campaign; and TFC are apparently entertaining offers for Sebastian Giovinco from Mexico and Europe.
Altidore and Giovinco have served as the identity of this team for the last three years and the likes of Aketxe—sly European signings on the cheap—have also been part of TFC’s recent success. Should these moves come to fruition in the coming weeks, TFC will be a much different side for the second half of the campaign. However, for now, floating in limbo in terms of identity and chemistry is only hurting Chicago’s Northern neighbors.
Universal Healthcare: Another clear weakness for Toronto heading into this match is yet another injury plague. Injuries have hampered TFC all season (arguably one of the catalysts for their CCL final loss) and they will enter Saturday’s fixture missing Drew Moore, Chris Mavinga, Auro, Jason Hernandez, and possibly Victor Vasquez as well. The effects of these absences have resulted in Toronto offering a flurry of academy kids contracts this season. Eighteen-year-old Ayo Akinola, nineteen-year-old Aidan Daniels, and twenty-year-olds Malik Johnson and Liam Fraser made their senior roster debuts against Ottawa and could be called on to fill our Saturday’s roster. Chicago has already shown what it can do against lower level opposition this week…
Priorities: Although they fielded a largely reserve side against Ottawa on Wednesday, the 1-0 victory over the Fury was anything but convincing. Toronto has the return leg coming up on Wednesday at BMO field and they will have one eye on that fixture as they approach the match against Chicago. Missing out on the Canadian Championship trophy and the associated CCL berth would be disastrous for Vanney and Toronto so we could very well see some rotation this weekend from the Canadians. This could open up a chance for Chicago to get a head of steam going as they look for a vital six points against playoff place rivals.
Prediction: This is a match between two teams that simply cannot afford to lose and neither will. Chicago 3-3 Toronto. Katai, Nikolic, and Bronico for the hosts. An Osorio double and a Sanchez own goal for the visitors.