What Are They All About? Toronto FC
Hanging on by a thread. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club drew 0-0 against FC Cincinnati in Ohio. The result could have caused irreversible damage to the Fire’s playoff hopes but with a weekend of shocking results in which the Eastern Conference standings remained largely unchanged and midweek results going their way as well, they are still alive in the post season hunt. They host Toronto FC this Sunday at SeatGeek Stadium (4:00 CT on ESPN+) in what may be the last Fire match to be held in Bridgeview. With a move to Soldier Field on the horizon, the scene is perfectly set for the side to give its supporters one last spectacle at the stadium they’ve called home for over a decade. Three points for Chicago on the day coupled with a loss or draw by New England would see their playoff hopes grow exponentially and even a draw in that scenario would mathematically keep them alive for the last matchday.
Toronto, on the other hand, has already qualified for the postseason and could still see themselves slide into fourth place in the East—ensuring homefield advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Additionally, their midweek match saw TFC look on as the Montreal Impact raised the Canadian Championship at BMO field, leaving MLS Cup as the only route for a CONCACAF Champions League berth. Competing at the highest level has been the norm for Greg Vanney and his charges in recent seasons, but this year has left much to be desired for Chicago’s northern neighbors. Toronto have two matches remaining to position themselves for success and the shadow of past failures will loom large should they slip up. The scene is perfectly set for Sunday with both sides desperately needing maximum points. MLS has outdone itself with drama this year and nobody is complaining about it. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Toronto Form Guide (All Competitions): W-D-L-W-D
Previous Result: A 1-0 home “victory” over Montreal in the Canadian Championship (TFC’s win took the championship to penalties in which they ultimately lost the tie).
Formation: 4-4-3; Bono; Laryea, Gonzalez, Mavinga, Morgan; Delgado, Bradley, Osorio; Pozuelo, Altidore, Endoh
Strengths: This will be the second meeting between these two sides after a 2-2 draw at BMO Field in April. Although the TFC side has not changed much since then—their last three starting lineups have not differed much from the one trotted out then—the trajectory of the team has. At the time, Toronto had won all three of their matches up to that point and were on an upward trajectory. We’ll get to why that hasn’t been the case below, but for now, let’s see where their abilities may shine through.
From Il Maestro to El Maestro: The most pertinent question for Toronto at the start of the season was how effectively they could replace the productivity of Sebastian Giovinco. They splashed a fair amount of cash on Alejandro Pozuelo, both in terms of transfer fee to Genk and on his DP level salary (almost $4m annually). An outright number ten, unlike Giovinco's second forward tendencies, Pozuelo has turned out to be the real deal. Coming off of a brace and an assist against NYCFC, the brilliance was there in April but now he has added consistency to a side that has needed it. Eleven goals and eleven assists on the season in twenty-eight matches is the type of productivity that TFC was hoping for, especially as many of the other pieces around him have under-performed.
Healthy, Happy, Hungry: We needn’t spend time discussing the times when Jozy Altidore has under-performed or spent extensive time on the sidelines in his career. Plenty of naysayers will focus on those aspects of the USMNT forward’s game. However, at the moment it looks like Altidore is rewarding Vanney and Manning’s decision to extend his contract. Ten goals and seven assists in twenty appearances is among the best hauls of his MLS career and he has really stepped into his role as a leader on the field. Four game winning goals from his position in leading the line is further proof that he may have turned a corner when it comes to performing in tough moments. Still in his twenties, Jozy has a few good years left in his legs and he’s a natural candidate to don the captain’s armband when Bradley moves on. Sunday could be the perfect occasion for him to further stake that claim.
Weaknesses: There is still as much possibility for Toronto to finish in seventh in the East as there is for them to finish fourth. Crashing out of the Canadian Championship midweek to a Montreal side amidst constant chaos was perhaps a microcosm of TFC’s recent downturn. They were unable to effectively breakdown a stubborn Impact side as their single goal was the only shot they were able to put on target (despite fifteen attempts). Everything seemed hurried, forced, and non-cohesive as their season continues to slip beyond their control. Their performance on Wednesday was capped off by three missed spot kicks in the shootout. Let’s see where they might struggle on Sunday.
Dry Spell: For as much as we praised Pozuelo above, the Spaniard has just one goal and no assists in TFC’s last four matches. Everyone has their ups and downs throughout the season and a hamstring injury did keep him out for a chunk of July, but the inability for TFC to cope without him is clear. A narrow home win over Cincy is all they had to show during his injury spell and their only win in the last four came against Colorado at home, a match in which Pozuelo scored the only goal. Although they wont have Mo Adams—the midfielder expertly negated Pozuelo’s impact in April—another standout performance from the backline and Dax McCarty could see TFC struggle to create opportunities. Altidore’s seven assists on the season are the only other noteworthy such tallies for this roster, a worry that Vanney may not have much control over.
Canadian Politeness: There is a very real possibility that this Toronto side could enter the postseason with the highest goals against tally of any playoff side. It depends on the next two weekends but going into the weekend with fifty goals conceded on the season is certainly not a good look. Only New England (fifty-four) surpasses that number, a stat largely due to an extraordinarily poor start under Friedel. Beyond the eye sore of that total, TFC has not kept an MLS clean sheet since July 13th against Montreal and has just four clean sheets this season, a worrying fact for a side that prided itself on defensive stability in the past but seems to be on a downward trajectory at the back. TFC’s total of sixty-four goals against was only outdone by record setting Orlando (seventy-four) last season despite conference lows in 2017 and 2016 (thirty-seven and thirty-nine). While the stats are telling, the question remains as to why they are occurring.
The most obvious answer lies with MLS’ roster building mechanisms and salary structures. Vanney had some hard decisions to make in the offseason after TFC won the 2017 MLS Cup. Cap space, increased wages, and performance bonus payouts saw the likes of Steven Beitashour move on and Benoit Cheyrou retire. These departures were followed up by Vasquez, Giovinco, and Nick Hagglund the following year. Whether responsible for defensive interventions or relieving pressure through possession and being on the front foot, many of these absences were not adequately replaced.
TFC took risks on Ager Aketxe, Gregory van der Wiel, and an increased burden on Chris Mavinga’s shoulders, none of which have panned out for various reasons. When you add the aging legs of Bradley, the forward-thinking instincts of Delgado, and the questionable re-purposing of Nick DeLeon, there’s a real personnel problem in shutting down the opposition.
Prediction: Bridgeview deserves one more moment of magic. Chicago 3-1 Toronto. Nemanja Nikolic, CJ Sapong, and Przemek Frankowski for the hosts. Pozuelo for the visitors. The Fire may still miss the playoffs but they will still be within touching distance at the final whistle on Sunday.