The Paul Mariner era at Toronto FC began with a disappointing 2-0 loss at Kansas City. Saturday offers a chance at redemption two months into the Englishman's reign.
It's been a rollercoaster ride for the Reds over that spell - strong performances coupled with woeful displays and a whole lot of draws.
Wednesday's match with Portland marked the beginning of six matches in seventeen days; a spell that should determine the fate of the 2012 campaign. Playoffs: a distant, vanishing - if not already gone - dream; the Champions League? Well, much hinges on the home meeting with Santos Laguna at the end of the month.
But that is in the future, for now the meeting with Sporting KC, the second of three on the season, is foremost in the minds of the club and its fans.
A closer look at Sporting is in order.
Much as in Toronto, the summer months have carried mixed blessings to the side from Kansas City - their first silverware in eight years, winning the US Open Cup Final on penalty kicks came with the sort of fixture congestion of which only Toronto and defeated finalists Seattle are familiar.
The match in Toronto will be their fifteenth competitive match since the international break (sixty-three days), throw in friendlies with Montpellier Herault SC of France and English Club Stoke City FC and that is a trying stretch of action.
It comes as little surprise that this run has not been without its difficulties.
Results have consequently suffered, but throughout KC has maintained their struggle with the likes of New York, Houston, and DC atop the Eastern Conference - currently Sporting holds first place, ahead of the Red Bulls by two points and Houston by three with all teams having played twenty-four.
In a peculiar twist of schedule the last few weeks have seen KC play a series of home-and-away pairings with Houston, Columbus, and New England.
Houston got the better of them, winning at home and drawing on the road, to take four of the six points. Columbus split the series, with each winning at the other's home ground. New England offered little by way of offense, losing 0-1 at home following a scoreless draw away.
Most recently DC came into Livestrong Sporting Park and fell 2-1 to KC on goals from Teal Bunbury and Graham Zusi on either side of a Nick DeLeon strike in the first half.
Bunbury opened the scoring after thirteen minutes, connecting with a strong header having drifted away from his marker, Chris Pontius, on a right-sided Zusi corner kick to nod the ball across the keeper to the far-side, beyond the reach of Bill Hamid in goal.
DeLeon drew his side level ten minutes later, collecting an Andy Najar lofted cross to the back-post after a dashing run down the right, chesting it over the pressure of Michael Harrington and poking home a sliding finish under Jimmy Nielsen in goal.
But Zusi found the eventual game-winner after an hour of play, ghosting into space above the right-post, settling a Kei Kamara cross from the left and lashing a shot between the legs of a helpless Hamid.
Sporting dominated the match with DC relying on several big saves from Hamid and the aid of the woodwork - on at least three occasions - to keep the affair tight.
The win saw KC leapfrog Houston, who had fallen to New York the previous night, to take sole possession of first place in the East.
Coach Peter Vermes has not rested on his laurels, continuing the constant evolution of the squad, adding defensive cover in Serbian defender Neven Markovic, bolstering the midfield with the intriguing acquisition of former Barcelona youth product Oriol Rossel, blooding young professionals such as Soony Saad and Peterson Joseph, as well as working in local boy returned from a spell in Sweden, Michael Thomas.
While the personnel has rotated - with the likes of former Reds, Paulo Nagamura and Jacob Peterson, seeing minutes, coming in for the Olympian Roger Espinoza and the injured Bobby Convey primarily, Michael Harrington has seen some time in place of Chance Myers at right-back and Lawrence Olum providing cover for Aurelien Collin after he suffered facial fractures in the MLS All-Star Game - the 4-3-3 formation has remained.
Much of what was written before still rings true, but there have been some changes to be considered.
Vermes was able to give his squad a rest following the weekend's action with no midweek match on the docket, though three players were involved in national team duty: Zusi and Matt Besler travelled to Azteca in Mexico City with the US - Besler was an unused sub, Zusi played the final half hour- while Espinoza was called in for the Honduran side - but did not feature due to muscular overload, whatever that is.
Peterson and Convey continue to convalesce from nagging injuries, while Seth Sinovic has struggled with an ankle sprain.
The projected lineup is as follows: Jimmy Nielsen in goal; from right to left - Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Neven Markovic across the back; Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza at the base of the midfield with Graham Zusi at the point; Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury, and CJ Sapong across the top.
Nagamura could take one of the defensive midfield roles, Harrington could feature at right-back, while Sinovic could return to his left-back role if healthy.
The two last met, returning from the international break, on June 16th, as mentioned, Mariner's first match in charge of TFC.
The night began poorly for Toronto FC, who wilted under the width and aerial prowess of Sporting. The first twenty minutes of action were tough to watch for many TFC fans.
At least five serious chances went asking before Sapong finally found the back of the net.
Some fine interplay wide on the right between Myers and Peterson allowed the American Enthusiast to send a bouncing cross to the penalty spot, Doneil Henry whiffed on his clearing attempt, freezing Adrian Cann. Sapong had drifted away from Richard Eckersley behind Cann and was free to stroke a first-time effort past Milos Kocic on the near-side of the goal.
Despite having been seriously out played, Toronto had a few chances to draw level.
Torsten Frings lifted a ball over the top of the Sporting back-line, picking out Eric Avila in space. The diminutive attacker stroked a right-footed effort past Nielsen in goal, striking the inside of the right-post, rolling agonizingly across the line and dinging the other, before Collin could recover and clear the danger.
Cesar soon doubled KC advantage. Finding himself unmarked deep at the back-post from a lazy, in-swinging left-sided Zusi corner kick. The Brazilian had time to brace before smashing a marvelous right-footed volley from the corner of the six-yard box, high into the netting at the right-post.
Toronto would have pulled one back before the half-time whistle blew, were it not for the hustle of Peterson, who played like a man carrying a grudge on the night. His tracking back, matching the late run of Jeremy Hall stride for stride, surely robbed the Toronto left-back of a simple tap in at the back-post after Ryan Johnson had powered his way to the right-end-line.
Sporting began the second half as they had the first, nearly finding a third within a matter of seconds. A long ball out of the back was headed down by Sapong into the path of Bunbury. The still-disgraced prodigal son attempted to redirect the ball over Kocic, but the keeper was equal to the task, and the rebound was cleared before any further damage could be done.
With KC content with their two-goal led Toronto was able to take the initiative and were unlucky to not get back into the match.
Avila stroked a fine shot towards the top corner after some good work on the right by Johnson and Hall, but his attempt deflected off the leg of Zusi and floated wide, though the referee did not see the touch and awarded a goal kick.
Luis Silva threaded a wonderful through-ball up the middle, setting Danny Koevermans in alone, one-on-one with Nielsen, only for the Danish keeper to deny a low finish with a fine kicksave.
Silva himself was denied by Terry Dunfield of all people. A scramble from a Frings free kick fell to the young attacker, only for his blast to slam into the leg of Dunfield and trickle wide of the target.
Kansas City saw out the match to win 2-0.
But what began as an embarrassing display turned into the start of a new and moderately more prosperous era - Toronto went unbeaten in their next five matches before embarking on the recent run of up and down form.
KC really took advantage of their wide play, especially down the right - Hall and Avila were subpar defensively at the start - and from set-pieces in the first meeting. Toronto will need to be more aware of that threat and limit the chances from dead-ball situations.
Ashtone Morgan did not start that match, hopefully his inclusion will shut down that side of the pitch.
Long throws from Peterson - that night - and Besler - on Saturday - are a serious threat, it's a cliché, but they are nearly as potent as corner kicks and TFC must treat them with that respect - TFC struggles enough from corners and dead-balls as is. Kamara or Collin will be most likely targets for that service.
Toronto must also be wary of long, raking cross-field passes from the centre-backs, who are constantly looking to spring the wide attackers into space.
The attack will likely come from the wide positions, be wary of cut-backs or lifted balls into the middle or back-post as this Bunbury cross to Zusi indicates.
The weakness in the 4-3-3 is the space that it leaves behind the full-backs when they get forward, the deficient number of bodies in the midfield if caught in transtition with players forward, and that one good pass can bypass several defenders at once. KC's full-backs really get forward, virtually playing as wingers, which can leave them shorthanded on defense.
Silva's play through the middle will be vital, as will the use of width by Johnson, and Morgan.
Pressuring the ball-carrier and clogging passing lanes can lead to dangerous turnovers in the Sporting end - TFC needs to be aggressive in the attacking end, it can be very profitable. The defence tends to look nervous when outnumbered and forced to back up. They will therefore leave plenty of space for shots from distance around the top of the box. Eric Hassli will enjoy this.
This Columbus goal shows both the pressure that leads to a turnover and the defense dropping off to allow the shot.
The centre-backs also have a tendency to leave space between them that can be exploited, as they did here against New England - something that Hassli will also enjoy.
Nielsen has a tendency to cheat towards the middle on shots from wide positions, leaving a hint of a gap at the short-side. Fredy Montero nearly squeaked one through here, as did Saer Sene in one of the New England matches.
Toronto and Sporting will meet again on September 1st in Kansas City.
Keep an eye out for Kamara's mouthguard - it appears to have fangs painted on it - and heaven forbid they score, expect an annoying preplanned goal celebration.
Interesting weather tidbit from Steve Brisendine of MLSsoccer.com, given the tireless running required in SKC's system, they are 4-1-0 (four wins, one draw) in matches that kicked off at 86 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
There have been three 0-0 draws between the two clubs in Toronto (2008, 2010, and 2011); KC won the inaugural match in Toronto - and the BMO Field opener - back in 2007, 0-1 on a late strike from Eddie Johnson; Toronto kept a further two additional clean sheets (to bring their total at home versus KC to five) with a 2-0 win in 2008 via an Amado Guevara brace and a 1-0 win in 2009 from a Danny Dichio tally.
Sporting Kansas City Eastern Conference First Place
Played 24 Wins 13 Draws 4 Losses 7 Points 43
Goals For 30 Against 22 Differential +8
Home 7-2-3 Away 6-2-4