A well-needed rest for all involved - though some within Toronto FC were busy jet-setting about in search of unicorns - but it is back to the grind of a season winding down.
While most MLS clubs – all bar four to be exact– head into the penultimate round of the year with the playoffs still a possibility, for Toronto, it is an all-too-familiar situation, once more on the outside looking in, their sole remaining joy to play spoiler – perhaps deliciously so – through their two remaining matches.
Saturday brings with it a familiar foe as it has been just over a month since Chicago rolled in to BMO Field.
Much of what was written then rings true – Parts One and Two – but, as always, a closer look at the Chicago Fire is in order.
Frank Klopas’ Fire have played five matches since that last meeting, amassing a record of three wins, a draw and a loss over that spell, resurrecting their playoffs hopes with a strong run of form; hopes once thought lost after a pair of poor results.
They followed up their draw in Toronto – more on that shortly – with a dramatic 3-2 win at home over New England – Revolution goals from Kelyn Rowe and Saer Sene either side of a Juan Luis Anangono goal in the first half, Mike Magee and Alex dragged the Fire back in the second - before falling 3-0 to the Crew in Columbus – on goals from Dominic Oduro, Federico Higuain, and Bernardo Anor, though a 29th minute red card to Bakary Soumare was a factor.
They dropped further points at home against Montreal in the final minutes of the match – Marco Di Vaio opened the scoring before a Magee brace put Chicago ahead; Magee would miss a chance at his hat-trick from the spot and Maxim Tissot would find an equalizer in the 87th minute - but responded to that disappointment with a comprehensive 0-3 defeat of DC United – on goals from Jeff Larentowicz, Soumare, and Quincy Amarikwa - who may have been suffering from a slight US Open Cup Final win hangover.
Chicago came out flying in Dallas on the weekend scoring three goals in the first hour – from Anangono, Magee and courtesy a Jalil Anibaba screamer, but gave their nerves a fright in the second half, allowing a desperate opponent to claw back to 2-3 – through a pair from Kenny Cooper, one controversially from the spot.
They currently hold possession of the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, tied on points with Montreal – who sit in fourth – and Philadelphia – in sixth – trailing the Impact on goal-scored, but leading the Union in wins – second and first tie-breakers, respectively.
Their lone remaining match is next Sunday at New York.
September 11 Toronto 1: Chicago 1
The two met on a stormy Wednesday night at BMO Field, Chicago would take the lead against the run of play, a touch fortunately, in the 20th minute when Dilly Duka’s looping ball for Magee bounced over Joe Bendik, untouched into the Toronto net.
Magee was on hand, stretching to get a touch - he could not - but did enough to unsettle the keeper.
Toronto would not trail for long, with Robert Earnshaw collecting a low ball from Bobby Convey on the right three minutes later, stepping around the flung challenges of Gonzalo Segares and Soumare before tucking a left-footer into the Chicago goal.
Alvaro Rey nearly put Toronto in front before half-time when he struck the bar with a right-footer from outside the box after Andrew Wiedeman had played back to him and Justin Braun would drag a shot wide in the second half, having overlooked a pass to an open man – an error that wasted several good TFC chances.
Bendik would be called upon to save his side once more in the waning moments, when Chris Rolfe sprung Amarikwa in alone, but the big keeper was out quick to get a deflection.
There are two question marks hanging over Klopas’ head with the Fire preparing for Saturday’s match.
The first surrounds the availability of Duka, who rolled his ankle and has taken a few days off to give it a rest.
The other is the fitness of Arevalo Rios, who only just returned from international duty with Uruguay, where he was involved extensively, and may need a rest with the travel and exertion.
Minor concerns revolve around Magee and Patrick Nyarko – calf tendinitis and light-headedness, respectively – but they should both be available for selection.
With those in mind, their projected lineup is as follows: Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left – Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, Bakary Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares across the back; through the midfield, Patrick Nyarko, Jeff Larentowicz, Alex, and Chris Rolfe, with Juan Luis Anangono and Mike Magee up top.
Chicago has plenty of other options should they choose to go a different way.
Joel Lindpere, who also returns from time away with Estonia, should be available for the left-side if required, while Dan Paladini and Logan Pause are sturdy options through the middle.
Anangono, who joined midway through July, has found his scoring boots – tallying twice through their last five matches, nabbing an assist against DC and crafting another with some physical play against New England – proving a very useful foil for Magee.
His large frame creates gaps for the wily Magee, holding off the attentions of Jose Goncalves, one of the best defenders in the league, to leave the path clear for Magee to score:
Speaking of Magee, the man who is scoring so freely these days that he hardly even has to try:
Joking aside, it is Magee’s ability to appear harmless, but read the play so well that enables him to arrive first to so many chances, as in his predatory theft against Montreal:
Magee is currently tied with Di Vaio atop the Golden Boot standings with nineteen goals - Toronto has to watch him closely and never give up on a loose ball.
Anangono is a force to be reckoned with, playing a role in two of their goals in DC.
First overpowering Daniel Woolard in the corner and showing some excellent footwork to cut into the box before cutting back for Larentowicz:
Then, flicking a free-kick to the near-post into the middle for Soumare to score his first career goal in MLS.
That near-post flick on a set-piece has proved a useful tool; the opening goal against Dallas on the weekend found the back of the net from such a play.
Toronto will have to be wary from set-piece situations; Anangono’s physicality matches up well with Doneil Henry, but his craftiness may cause the young defender some trouble.
Then there was Anibaba’s screamer – not much one can do to prevent those chances. Toronto should be aware of Chicago’s shooting threat from distance though, not just from Anibaba, but Rolfe, Alex, Paladini, and Larentowicz have all been know to have a crack.
Their marking in the box has shown signs of being generally poor - and a little weak - Kenny Cooper’s first from the weekend, shoving away the attentions of Segares with the bigger centre-backs nowhere to be seen:
Not to mention the hesitancy in pressuring David Ferreria allowing him to pick out the big striker with a cross.
Bright Dike could find some joy in those situations.
Miscommunication and mistakes have proved equally costly - Tissot’s late equalizer was the result of a Larentowicz clearance skimming off the back of Anibaba and falling to the unmarked opponent for a neat header:
As mentioned in the previous preview, switching on from goal-kicks have proved a constant problem – both of New England’s goals began with long punts from Bobby Shuttleworth, Sene’s is the more direct of the examples:
That same lack of attention to detail – and jumping towards the ball - has proved costly in open play as well, where tunnel vision allows players to find space, such as in Oduro’s opener for Columbus:
Toronto and Chicago have met fifteen times previously, with TFC winning three, Chicago seven and ending level five times.
Toronto’s draw in their last meeting ended a streak of four-straight Chicago wins, though the Fire’s unbeaten run stretched to seven matches.
TFC have never won in Chicago, where they have played six times, resulting in three Fire wins and three draws – they lost their match at Toyota Park last season 2-1 on second half goals from Marco Pappa and Austin Berry after Ryan Johnson had put Toronto ahead early.
Toronto has lost their last two visits to Bridgeview, their only two since a scoreless draw in 2010.