No rest for the wicked.
Toronto FC returns to the pitch Wednesday night (tonight) for the second of their ten matches in 37 days in Chicago for a match against the Fire.
While conceding a late equalizer in New York was disappointing, it should be remembered that TFC has never done well against the Red Bulls, let alone on the road, where the point was their first since 2008, having been outscored 17-1 in the five matches in between – given that perspective, a point was none too shabby of a result.
This team’s success will be based on that tried-and-tested MLS formula of winning at home and taking points on the road.
With that in mind, the match in Chicago offers another chance at some historical retribution, as Chicago has dominated the all-time series, especially at home – more on that later in Part Two.
But what to make of the Fire under their new head coach, Frank Yallop?
This young season has hardly been anything to crow about: Chicago sit bottom of the Eastern Conference on fourteen points from fourteen matches – Montreal’s weekend win over Houston was enough to put the struggling Impact into ninth place, one ahead of the Chicago, though Montreal have played one more match.
Such lowly position belies their true quality – Chicago have lost just twice in their last six league matches (eight all competitions) and their four losses on the season are as few as any club in the East. It is their propensity for draws that has cost them dearly, with eight to their name.
No doubt, a closer look at the Chicago Fire is in order.
When Yallop, a former Canadian International, was announced as the new head coach and director of soccer on October 31st of last year, just one day after the decision to not continue the tenure of Frank Klopas – he landed on his feet with Montreal – there was no doubt the roster would be in for a shake-up.
Largely through attrition – options declined or contracts expired, the likes of Paolo Tornaghi, Arevalo Rios, Joel Lindpere, Maicon Santos, and Wells Thompson – to name but a few – were headed out the door.
Joining them were young centre-back, Austin Berry - traded to Philadelphia for allocation; Daniel Paladini – to Columbus for a draft pick; and Jalil Anibaba – to Seattle with the number eight draft pick in the 2014 SuperDraft for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni.
Heading in the other direction, alongside the Seattle defenders, were the likes of Lovel Palmer, Greg Cochrane, and Matt Watson – in trades from Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, respectively.
Yallop clearly favours honed MLS experience when it comes to providing grit and steel to his back-line and midfield.
Perhaps most notably, Chicago added a bit of youth in the attack, signing rookie of the year frontrunner Harrison Shipp as a homegrown product, acquiring Benji Joya in a weighted lottery, and procuring Grant Ward on loan from Tottenham.
Landing Yallop was seen as a bit of a coup, as Vancouver were rumoured to be in talks with the experienced coach, but Chicago moved fastest.
Heading into Wednesday’s match, Chicago has two injury concerns with Patrick Nyarko still nursing a knee problem and Joya dealing with a quad strain, but Gonzalo Segares and Mike Magee look to be fit.
They will be without the services of centre-back Hurtado, who picked up two yellow cards inside thirteen minutes against his former club in Chicago’s match before the World Cup break – he has been a mainstay of their lineup and will be missed, while Jeff Larentowicz is expecting a child in the coming days, so may not be available.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left – Lovel Palmer, Patrick Ianni, Bakary Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares across the back; Jeff Larentowicz holding in the midfield with Grant Ward, Alex, and Harrison Shipp ahead; Quincy Amarikwa and Mike Magee will pair in attack.
It is possible that Greg Cochrane, who did well in Segares’ absence, will continue at left-back – especially given the pace and attacking threat of TFC’s right flank in Dominic Oduro and Mark Bloom, while should Yallop be overly concerned Matt Watson provides further defensive cover on that side than Shipp. Palmer has not exactly locked down the right-back slot, with both Watson and Greg Kinney seeing time there as well.
If so, Shipp is capable of moving into the middle in lieu of Alex, or Yallop could field two holding midfielders – with both recent draftee Chris Ritter and veteran Logan Pause available as well.
Should Joya be fit after all, he too has featured on the flank or in the middle, giving Yallop plenty of options in attack.
Being at home and in need of points, Chicago will likely field two strikers, sacrificing one of their defensive mids, though they could opt to keep two and sacrifice Alex, preferring to create from the wide areas instead.
Up top Juan Luis Anangono, who has struggled to find his feet in MLS, has looked good of late – scoring two in a recent US Open Cup match against Columbus. He provides a more physical look than either Magee or Amarikwa, but will likely be an impact substitute, once the two tricksters have pestered the Toronto defense for the first hour.
Draws have been the name of the game for Chicago this season.
After losing 3-2 at Chivas on opening day, Chicago would draw their next six matches – tying an MLS record, before losing 2-3 against Salt Lake at the start of May. Magee and Anangono gave the hosts the lead before the half-hour mark, but Salt Lake stormed back with three in the last twenty minutes, Joao Plata scoring the winner in the 93rd minute.
They would win the following week, their first of the season, in a nine-goal thriller at New York, thanks to a Shipp hat-trick and further goals from Amarikwa and Nyarko with Bradley Wright-Phillips notching a trio of goals of his own and Tim Cahill adding the fourth.
A second win would follow: 2-1 at home against Sporting KC – a Magee brace inside the first fifteen minutes, both from the penalty spot, provided the platform for the victory, though a 68th minute strike from Dom Dwyer meant it was not all easy sailing.
The winning streak would end at two, however, as they fell the next week in Columbus, succumbing 2-0 to the Crew on a pair of goals inside the first 25 minutes with Ethan Finlay and Jairo Arrieta scoring – both assisted by Federico Higuain.
June began with a draw at home against Los Angeles, 1-1, on goals from Larentowicz and Landon Donovan six minutes apart, and continued with another – their eighth of the season - this one scoreless, at Colorado in a dour midweek match.
The first phase of their season would close with a contentious 2-3 loss at home to Seattle that saw a flurry of bookings, two red cards, and suspensions and fines aplenty. Obafemi Martins opened the scoring on the half hour and doubled the advantage from the spot – as Hurtado was dismissed for a second yellow.
Shipp drew one back for Chicago and Martins would be expelled from the restart for apparently striking Joya as the two wrestled over the ball. Lamar Neagle would reinstate the visitors’ two-goal advantage and Shipp added his second of the game in consolation.
During the World Cup break they progressed to the Quarterfinals of the US Open Cup with a weather-affected 2-1 win over Pittsburgh – the match was abandoned in the second half with Chicago awarded the win, and a 4-2 result over Columbus, both at home.
Chicago, aside from Toronto, have played the fewest matches in the Eastern Conference with just fourteen to their name, as such their July is looking similarly busy with six league matches, an open cup fixture, and a friendly against Tottenham of their own on the docket – they travel to Kansas City for a Sunday match before heading to Atlanta for the Open Cup midweek, then return north for a match in New England next weekend.
Fortunately for them, they were not involved in play this past weekend and should thus be fresh, though the congested schedule approaching may be a consideration in lineup selection.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, albeit in a condensed form - it is gameday after all, will be posted shortly.