Graham Zusi's the man to stop. AJ DeLaGarza very much fails to do so.
But what can be expected from Toronto FC after a long rest and a change at the helm? Will the horror-show continue? Or is there reason for cautious optimism?
It will have been twenty days since TFC finally got their season started - a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on May 26th - when they take to the pitch at Livestrong Sporting Park on Saturday evening.
Has the much needed rest invigorated the weary? Will a new voice blaring from the touchline spark renewed interest from the squad? There are plenty of matches remaining, but is the playoffs an achievable goal? Or is respectability the only cause left to fight for?
The upcoming schedule is unkind for most of the league. In a race to make up for lost time, clubs are facing a daunting run of games in a compressed space of time - Toronto starts a run of ten matches in the next thirty-two days.
And what of their hosts, Sporting KC?
Kansas City had a brief respite of their own - eleven days have passed since a pair of US Open Cup (USOC) matches - but Saturday begins a run of seven matches in twenty-one days including a desperate stretch of four matches in nine days that sees them in Seattle (Wednesday), on to Philadelphia (Saturday), then back home to host Dayton in the USOC (Tuesday) and finally, due to a quirk in the scheduling, against Chicago (Friday) on NBC.
The season resumes on Saturday. The summer slog will soon give way to the postseason dash; this treacherous stretch of games will largely determine how the year concludes, success or failure? Time is running out.
Sporting Coach Peter Vermes has consistently used the same 4-3-3 formation in every one of their twelve previous league matches. Jimmy Nielsen in goal, from right to left: Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic along the back; Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza sitting in the midfield with Graham Zusi above to link with the forward trio of Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong, and Bobby Convey.
Seven times they have field their first choice lineup, four times there has been one alteration and only once have they made two changes. Teal Bunbury began the season as the central striker, only to lose out to Sapong, though he has returned to the pitch in the most recent two league matches.
Sinovic's health has caused some trouble at the left-back slot; a wrist injury saw him miss two matches though he returned sporting a cast and then suffered a nasty gash on the hand going over the advertising boards against San Jose. Michael Harrington is an admirable stand-in, if less likely to maraud forward with such gusto.
Convey picked up a calf problem prior to the international break missing the final league match against San Jose. With Bunbury having taken Sapong's spot in the centre, the second year attacker filled in admirably on the left flank.
Such consistency is any manager's dream. Wisely, Vermes used the Open Cup to give minutes to some of the fringe players of the squad with several starters away with their country and the others in need of a break.
Backup keeper Jon Kempin, midfielder turned centre-back Konrad Warzycha (yes, Robert - coach of Columbus- 's son), defender/midfielder Lawrence Olum, Paulo Nagamura (once of TFC), Peterson Joseph (the Haitian Xavi - great nickname, hope he earns it), utility-man Jacob Peterson (never heard of him), and the young attacking pair of Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer a run out for the majority of the two matches against USL PRO's Orlando City and MLS opposition Colorado Rapids.
Heading into the weekend Vermes has a few headaches to consider. One half of his centre-back pairing - Besler - had an appendectomy last Friday, and is unlikely to feature. Kamara has still not returned from duty for Sierra Leone, who still have a qualifier remaining against Sao Tome e Principe scheduled for earlier the same day as the Toronto match. Convey is still nursing that same calf strain, he missed out on the Open Cup duty and has remained listed as questionable throughout the break.
The Besler absence is the most damaging, if KC has a lack of depth in any position it is in the centre of defense. Draft-pick Cyprian Hedrick, who has featured in reserve and exhibition matches, is out for several months with a fractured fibula, and Warzycha is a midfielder, who only recently began to be retrained as a centre-back. The other choices have limited experience and size to replace Besler. It is possible that Olum or Cesar, usually defensive midfielders could be shifted back there, with Nagamura moving into the shield in front of the back-line. Really it's a toss-up, experience would put Cesar or Olum there, but Vermes may just show faith in the young Warzycha; give him a proper test before the bigger matches to follow.
With those considerations in mind, the projected lineup for the match has the White Panther, Jimmy Nielsen in goal; from right to left: Myers, Collin, Warzycha, and Sinovic across the back; Cesar and Espinoza sitting in the midfield with Zusi just above them; and a forward three of Jacob Peterson, Bunbury, and Sapong.
Kansas City began the season on a tear, seven straight wins saw them surge clear at the top of the Eastern Conference. A 1-0 loss in Portland, the only goal an unfortunate own-goal off the head of Myers as he and Cesar got in each other's way attempting to close down a Timbers counterattack. A harmless right-sided cross from Kris Boyd ended that rampage through the league and began a lean period of four winless matches including a stunning 0-2 defeat to Montreal.
Their final league match saw them arrest this slide with a 2-1 win over San Jose; two first half goals - Sapong in the fifth and Kamara in the thirty-ninth - comfortably put Sporting in front before Simon Dawkins snagged a consolation goal in the seventy-second, finding a yard of space just outside the box and curling an unstoppable shot into the far-right corner, beyond the reach of Nielsen.
They currently sit comfortably in third place, well within reach of first in the East and with a seven point gap on Columbus in fourth.
Since the league went on hiatus, KC have played two Open Cup matches. The first, against Orlando City, who came into town and put up a brave fight against a reserve laden side; eventually falling 3-2 after Vermes brought in a few regulars and Saad knocked in a four minute brace. Orlando went down a man shortly after, but still managed to pull within one in the final ten minutes of the match. Sporting avoided becoming another of the eight MLS sides that fell in the third round, advancing to the Round of Sixteen.
Six days later they played Colorado, again at home, and strode out 2-0 winners on the night, having reverted to a much stronger selection - as did Colorado, it should be noted.
Taking the lead in the first half - an unfortunate own-goal by Rapids keeper Matt Pickens, pushing a Collin bullet-header onto the left post, only for it to ricochet off him and into the open net; Bunbury added an insurance marker in the final quarter of an hour - his third in as many matches, all competitions - first-timing a Sapong headed knock down past a helpless Pickens from seven yards.
Kansas City really use their width well, with both full-backs rampage up the pitch to overlap the wide attackers. Both outside forwards can either cut in-field to bear in on goal for a shot or to link up with a surging Zusi or can go wide to deliver a cross.
The forwards are big and athletic in the eighteen yard box, winning headers and pressuring defenders into making mistakes. All three forwards are brash enough to try anything, with Kamara the most flamboyant of the bunch always up for an acrobatic volley attempt. Bunbury tends to be more of a poacher, hanging around the six yard box, looking to get a toe on anything that comes his way and Sapong uses his physicality to get into good position on slashing runs and combines size and strength with a deft touch.
Zusi is the focal point of their attack, building from the midfield and spraying passes out to either flank.
With two holders sitting behind him he is free to roam around the pitch and delivers a mean set-piece, be it free kick or corner, Collin is particularly dangerous from dead-ball situations.
In open play, they like a back-post header and really stick with the play, often forcing the issue with pressure and converting rebound opportunities.
Zusi in particular in fond of a long range shot and has scored some beauties in the past - including this forty-five yard screamer against Dallas last season.
With Besler likely to miss the game, his long throws will not be a concern, but when he is on the pitch, they are a constant threat to create chances, whenever the ball goes out of play.
Their defense is solid, but largely relies on not being overly tested, as matches against Salt Lake and Los Angeles will attest to - LA could not muster a single attempt on target, while Salt Lake finally got one, a weak header from Nat Borchers, to end a run of over three hundred minutes without conceding a single shot on goal.
For all the praise their attacking style has earned them, they do not score in bunches. Seventeen goals in twelve matches is nothing to celebrate and does indicate a certain difficulty finishing. They have won four matches with a 1-0 score-line and have won and lost a further two matches, each way, by a single goal.
KC have recently begun to score early, tallying in the first five minutes in each of their last two league matches, and nabbing two in the first quarter of an hour against Colorado. But they are susceptible to second half surges; both Colorado and Chicago overcoming first half deficits to steal back points.
Espinoza can be a bit of a hot-head, a trait he has done well to suppress this season, though he was sent off for a heavy body-check/flying elbow to the head of Chicago's Sebastian Grazzini a few weeks back. Julian de Guzman could get him riled up, especially as the two clashed several times when Canada hosted Honduras on Tuesday.
With Zusi being so crucial to their attack, it may be a good idea to have de Guzman shadow him and shut him down, as he did against Dwayne De Rosario when DC United came to BMO Field.
With Besler out, the centre defense is compromised. Collin while physical - and very personable see Points of Interest - is a touch rash, picks up bookings freely - he led the league, along with David Beckham last season with ten yellow cards - and has conceded penalty kicks in consecutive matches, losses to Montreal and Chicago, sliding in for unwinnable challenges, though to be fair the one against Montreal was a harsh decision.
The underrated Besler, who was a surprise fan vote in inclusion in last season All-Star team, really holds the back-line firm, allowing Collin to be more adventurous in confronting attackers.
Nielsen in goal is acrobatic and a fine shot stopper, but as with all keepers, can be erratic, often punching the ball and occasionally palming a rebound into a dangerous position rather than holding it, or conceding a corner.
They have a few weaknesses in conceding certain types of goals. Long-range shots - Felipe for Montreal and Dawkins for San Jose - and scrambled plays, where the first phase breaks down and they find themselves unorganized in particular have accounted for several goals, while they have also been breached by a direct free kick - Ricardo Villar for Dallas - and a header from a free kick - Tyrone Marshall for Colorado.
Points of Interest
Toronto and Kansas City meet a further two times in league play: August 18th in Toronto and September 1st back in Kansas City.
Toronto has struggled in KC, their lone win in six matches (four losses and a draw) came in the opening match of 2009 - a 2-3 victory on the strength of goals from Jim Brennan and a brace from Amado Guevara.