The disappointment that has been 2013 is winding down and soon enough the post-mortems will begin to flow.
One of the themes that will emerge is that, despite their woeful record, Toronto FC managed to keep a lot of matches close this season.
It was not until May - casting aside that Voyageurs Cup night in Montreal – that the team lost by more than a single goal and since then there have been just four more such losses, three of which have come in the last month.
A 2-0 loss in New York on the weekend, where TFC faced one of the better teams in the league at their stronghold and without a handful of first teamers was always apt to be a disappointment in the making.
And the 4-0 loss in Portland was close – on the scoreboard at least - until it wasn’t.
The 2-0 loss in Columbus was a tough one, but flat performances come with the territory, while the 1-0 loss to Chivas - up a man no less - evidenced a side lacking finish and confidence.
The disturbing aspect of this relatively recent trend, aside from the generally disparaging nature of the losses, is that at times it looks like the team has given up or just plain run out of ideas.
But the worst of the bunch was undoubtedly the 3-0 loss in Kansas City back in July – it was tough to watch.
Not much has changed on the KC front - Coach Peter Vermes runs a pretty tight ship - but still, a closer look at the enemy is in order.
In the slightly more than two months since the two last met, Kansas City has played eight league matches and three in the CONCACAF Champions League.
A 1-2 win in Salt Lake – Soony Saad and Ike Opara, in the 97th minute, responding after Robbie Findley had opened the scoring - stretched their winning streak to three and unbeaten streak to six, but with the turning of the calendar came a fall.
Losses in Montreal – 1-0 on a 96th minute Blake Smith winner - and against New York – 2-3, Jonny Steele and Kei Kamara trading first half goals, before Fabian Espindola and Lloyd Sam put New York in front, Dom Dwyer would snag some consolation in the 92nd - would follow.
A successful trip down to Nicaragua – winning 0-2 against Real Esteli – would precipitate a 3-0 win over New England – on a pair of goals from Kei Kamara and a screamer of a strike from Benny Feilhaber, but a pair of 1-0 losses, away to San Jose – from Chris Wondolowski - and to Chicago – care of Hunter Jumper - followed suit.
Since the end of August however, Sporting are unbeaten in four in all competitions.
A 2-1 against Colorado – Feilhaber and Graham Zusi either side of an Edson Buddle strike - and a 3-0 win over Columbus – Bieler, Saad and CJ Sapong notching goals - in the league, bookended by a win in Honduras – 0-2 against CD Olimpia – and a draw at home in the Champions League – 1-1 against Real Esteli in the return fixture.
July 13th Sporting KC 3: Toronto FC 0
The late announcement of Darren O’Dea’s return to Toronto - to complete his impending transfer - began the match under a cloud of confusion, yet it still could have been so different had either of Jeremy Brockie’s attempts after twenty minutes found their way past Jimmy Nielsen.
Barely a minute later Soony Saad would sneak a shot past Joe Bendik at the short-side to open the scoring for the hosts.
Saad would add a second after 51 minutes, after Bendik parried Graham Zusi’s shot into the path of the forward and Toronto would be reduced to ten men seven minutes later when Reggie Lambe saw red for a heavy swipe at the two-goal scorer.
KC rounded out the result with a brilliant passage of play in the 63rd with Claudio Bieler getting on the end of some fine one-touch passing.
A fourth was called offside, sparing any further blushes; in truth it could - and should - have been more.
KC had an off-weekend from league play, but took to the pitch on Tuesday in the Champions League against Real Esteli.
That extra rest provided by the weekend off will come in handy after most of their regular starters took part. It was a calculated gamble from Vermes that may give Toronto a glimmer of hope on the weekend.
Having won their two road matches in CONCACAF, Sporting saw Tuesday’s match as a chance to clinch their qualification for the next round and opted to play seven starters, most of whom played the entire match.
The trip up to Toronto for an early afternoon match on just four days rest could be a slight consideration, but Vermes will likely stick with his regular starters.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Jimmy Nielsen in goal; from right to left – Josh Gardner, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic across the back; Oriol Rosell sitting behind Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber in midfield, with Soony Saad, Claudio Bieler, and Graham Zusi as the frontline.
A few possible variants:
Chance Myers, their regular right-back, has been laid up with a groin strain, if ready to go he may return on Saturday in place of Gardner.
Both Rosell and Feilhaber played the entire match on Tuesday and may be replaced with options such as Laurence Olum or former Red, Jacob Peterson, who scored their goal, – though Peterson has featured more as part of the top three.
Despite Kamara’s transfer to Middlesborough FC there are still plenty of forward options: Dom Dwyer, CJ Sapong or some fellow by the name of Teal Bunbury; Zusi went the full match and could be due a rest having just returned from injury, while Bieler went an hour and Saad fifteen minutes more than that.
Added to their usual arsenal of set-pieces, long throws, and general troublesome wide play, Sporting KC has made quick breaks from forced turnovers high up the field a useful tool in recent weeks.
Against Columbus, it was Saad finishing off the counter after Bieler and Nagamura forced a turnover in midfield from a poor touch by Chad Barson.
Feilhaber, a flickering talent at the best of times, has put together some wonder strikes of late, such as this finish against Colorado after Dwyer prevented Hendry Thomas from collecting a loose ball to set up this screamer.
Toronto will have to be crisp on the ball in midfield in order to prevent any such turnovers against KC’s heavy press.
Against New England it was Saad who twice played provider, sending inviting crosses into the box for Kamara to beat Kevin Alston in the air on each occasion.
Kamara may have left for England, but Sapong provides an equally sizeable target in the box and his strength, as seen in his goal against Columbus, will be a challenge for Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry.
Rosell’s clipped ball into the box and the straight-arm that holds off Tyson Wahl crafted the space, while Matt Lampson in goal could have done better – keepers are allowed to use their hands.
If Toronto can avoid the midfield pressure, Sporting’s back-line can be caught playing a little high and looking for the offside trap, as against New York.
Robert Earnshaw would find some joy in this area, but with his fitness in doubt, it will likely fall on the shoulders of Andrew Wiedeman and Bright Dike to find this space and prod.
Similarly, with their full-backs pressing forward into the attack and no real speed on the back-line or in the midfield, Sporting can be caught with quick moves up the field.
An alert, early throw from Luis Robles frees Steele down the left and he wisely plays to the open Sam once the defenders had drifted out to meet him.
Toronto must get the ball forward quickly and be unselfish, should they hope to strike in a similar manner.
Service from the right side has caused KC a lot of trouble of late, Wondolowski’s goal for San Jose and Jumper’s for Chicago both came from that side of the pitch.
Whether it is a product of Sinovic being caught forward to create space or Chance Myers on the receiving end struggling to mark, Alvaro Rey – Toronto’s best crosser, Bobby Convey, and Richard Eckersley should look to send serviceable balls into the area for Wiedeman and Dike to attack.
In eight all-time meetings in Toronto, TFC have won three, KC two, and three have ended in draws.
Toronto won their meeting at the SkyDome earlier this season 2-1.
KC’s 0-1 win last season – an 83rd minute strike from Kamara that Milos Kocic failed to hold - was their first in Toronto since TFC’s expansion season when Eddie Johnson ruined the home opener in the 81st minute.