It’s been an eventful few days.
The obligatory cull, a depressing defeat, and then one of the more bizarre extended-transfer sagas to which there may never be a full explanation.
A week in TFC-land has a way of providing more drama than the average fan can handle; as a defense mechanism, one must simply tune it out on occasion.
On Wednesday night it’s back to what should matter – the match; though of course, with playoffs only a figment of mathematical possibility, it really doesn’t matter that much either.
Or does it?
Eliminated organizations often spout about how finishing a season strong can carry into the next season; it would take some mental gymnastics to prove or disprove veracity either way, so for now find content in playing the role of spoiler.
Seven matches remain, all bar one against teams in line for or fighting to achieve the hallowed playoffs; though hollow, there is a chance to bask in some reflected glory – or misery.
Chicago is one of those on the fringes of the picture.
Bizarrely, this will be the first meeting between the two and as such, a closer look at the enemy is definitely in order.
Frank Klopas has quietly assembled a very interesting squad. Hardly one of the glamour sides of the league, unbefitting of such a grand town – a fact that rankles with the hardcore and the distant, California-based ownership alike.
Last season, a late surge was enough to see them into the playoffs – finishing fourth in the East – but an elimination round loss at home to Houston ended any further aspirations.
This season started very slow – as will be seen in the next section – but two trades at the end of May, acquiring Bakary Soumare from Philadelphia for al o’cation and a second rounder in the 2014 SuperDraft and Mike Magee from Los Angeles for Robbie Rogers, helped turn the tide.
Added to that are the more recent additions of Juan Luis Anangono and Arevalo Rios, and Klopas and company have restocked well.
There is one major question overhanging Wednesday’s match – the fitness of Mike Magee, who left their weekend match at half-time.
Magee has featured in fourteen matches since joining the club, scoring nine goals and providing three assists to factor into nearly half of Chicago’s 27 goals.
Should he be unavailable, it would be a major blow.
Klopas has settled on a consistent lineup of late – makes sense, with every point valuable, may as well put out one’s best eleven – but also has plenty of options.
They tend to operate in a flat 4-4-2 with one striker playing slightly off the shoulder of the other – if Chris Rolfe and Magee, Rolfe drops off, though against Montreal it was Alex off the shoulder of Anangono.
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; Alex, Jeff Larentowicz, Logan Pause, and Dilly Duka through the midfield, with Jose Luis Anangono and Chris Rolfe up top.
If Magee is fine, then he will likely start ahead of Anangono, but with a cross-country flight – they played in Seattle on Saturday – and short rest – they return home to face New England, a direct rival, on the weekend, it may be prudent to rest the striker rather than risk his absence through an extended spell – and TFC is TFC.
Anangono has not featured very much – two starts and three substitute appearances – and is yet to score in the league, though he has looked lively and strong.
Chicago does have other options up top, ones familiar to Toronto folk: former TFC Captain, Maicon Santos could feature, another former Red, Quincy Amarikwa is a possibility, or perhaps Patrick Nyarko could be pushed up top.
It appears Toronto will be spared the biting challenges of Uruguayan Rios, who is away with the national team – they play Colombia in Montevideo the day before the match (September 10 – today).
Pause stepped into Rios’ vacated midfield role on the weekend, but Chicago has plenty of central midfielders – Alex could move centrally, opening up space for Nyarko on the right or for Duka to swap flanks, leaving the left to Joel Lindpere – he provides more creativity in the middle; or Daniel Paladini – a vastly underrated player – could feature, to name but two possible options.
Lindpere has been relegated to substitute appearances in recent weeks (he did not even travel on the weekend, perhaps shrewdly, why put those extra miles on a veteran just to sit on the bench) – with the improved form of the enigmatic Duka – but is still a valuable asset, usually on the left, having provided two goals and six assists through a scintillating eight-match run that saw Chicago win five and draw one.
Chicago currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, on 35 points after 26 matches – two points behind New England and Houston, who are tied for the fifth and final playoff berth (the Revolution hold that spot by dint of scoring more goals – the second tie-breaker).
Cleary this match is important as a win would put the Fire ahead by a point and level on matches with seven games remaining.
The season began miserably – a 4-0 loss in Los Angeles to the Galaxy on opening day (Magee scoring three for the Galaxy) – and took its time getting better. March closed with a 1-4 loss – at home – to lowly Chivas and May ended with a run of three loses and a draw.
Chicago had eight points after the first three months of the season.
At the start of June, coincidentally (not really) when Magee made his debut, came the turn.
Chicago began a five-match unbeaten run – wins at home against DC, Colorado and San Jose, on the road in Columbus and a draw against Portland in Bridgeview, Illinois – before losing twice – home to Kansas City and away to Vancouver, while progressing to the Semifinals of the US Open Cup.
A 4-1 win over DC – on a Rolfe brace and singles from Lindpere and Magee, Luis Silva scored DC lone goal – was followed by a 1-1 draw in Houston – Cam Weaver and Magee exchanged goals within two minutes.
They would win in Philadelphia – 1-2 on goals from Nyarko and Magee either side of a Sheanon Williams goal – before DC found a measure of revenge for the recent thrashing with a 0-2 result in the Open Cup in Chicago.
They would rebound with a 2-1 over Montreal – early goals from Lindpere and Duka were enough to see out a Felipe strike on the hour mark – and then lost 2-0 in New England – Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe proving too much for the Fire in a fractious match that ended in post-final whistle red cards and suspensions for a scuffle between Soumare and a member of the New England training staff.
A 1-0 win against KC – thanks to a Hunter Jumper goal - closed the month of August.
With September came another 1-1 draw against Houston – in Chicago this time, a late Adam Moffat strike cancelling a first half Bobby Boswell own-goal – before losing 2-1 in Seattle – Magee struck before exiting, but Lamar Neagle equalized before half and an 89th minute Segares own-goal proved decisive.
After the Seattle loss, Pause, the longest serving member – since 2003 - and current captain of the side said, "It's a tough one. If you look at the game as a whole, there were points where we were pretty pleased with how we played. It was just an unfortunate result. We've got to forget about it quick, though."
"I think we do believe that we're right in there, but we also know the reality, that the window to gain ground is getting smaller and we need to take advantage of the games that we play, especially the conference games that are coming up.
"We feel absolutely like we're right there within striking distance, we just need to make sure that we take advantage of our opportunities."
An old cliché in sports is that a game in quick succession after a failure is a blessing; a chance to get back out there and right the supposed wrongs – though Toronto of course has even more wrongs to right after that awful capitulation in Portland - and Chicago will be hungry for that chance to get back on track, seeing the three points as crucial to their playoff hopes.
Should be a good match.
Part Two reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses will be posted later this evening.