With the transfer window open and rumour swirling, Toronto FC returns to what matters on Saturday with a difficult away trip to Sporting KC.
What a hectic week and a half it has been since that entertaining, if manic and ultimately disappointing, 3-3 draw against Canadian foes, Montreal, last Wednesday.
The leaked speculation around Diego Forlan, the trade of Luis Silva to DC – jettisoning yet more future promise for a supposed now-solution (that remains to be seen, but expect this departure to bite in the end), and then there is Canada….
Stepping away from the off-field – and international - madness, the next few weeks will be crucial to what remains of this season. Many would argue that half-way through 2013 – having played seventeen matches and accumulated a mere thirteen points - it is already a lost cause, languishing a dozen points adrift of the final playoff spot, but coach Ryan Nelsen, stills dreams that goal attainable – always one to put on the brave face.
But enough of that idle talk, there’s a match to be played. Saturday; Kansas City: one of the top teams in the league and a side hungry for revenge after losing in their visit to the SkyDome way back in March, when the season was young and, alas, all remained possible.
Much of what was discussed then still rings true, but, as always, a closer look at the enemy, Sporting KC, is in order.
Kansas City enters Saturday’s match unbeaten in their last four matches, following up draws with Dallas and Vancouver by beating Columbus and Chicago, respectively.
In Dallas they surged to a two-goal lead with a Kei Kamara penalty kick and a Je-Vaughan Watson own-goal on either side of the half-time break. Aurelien Collin was tugged down by Andrew Jacobson in the box and Kamara converted from the spot in the 43rd minute. Watson then fell victim to a left-sided, in-swinging Graham Zusi corner kick that skipped past Claudio Bieler at the near-post, and bounded off the midfielder into his own net.
But Jacobson found redemption in the 88th minute - after CJ Sapong was sent off for redirecting a ball into the face of the prone midfielder - by flicking a back-header from a left-sided Ramon Nunez cross into the far-side of the goal and rookie centre-back Walker Zimmerman completed the comeback in the 90th when his powerful header from a David Ferreira free-kick found the back of the net.
Back home the following week against Columbus, KC was twice dragged back from a lead before stealing the result in the final ten minutes.
Kamara finished a chance from a wonderful cross-field ball from Soony Sadd in the 34th, but Jairo Arrieta took advantage of the retreating defenders on a counterattack to level three minutes after half-time.
Bieler then reinstated the lead two minutes later – when a Chance Myers cross skimmed off the head of Crew defender, Josh Williams, and fell kindly to him – but three minutes on, Dominic Oduro took advantage of an under-hit back-pass from Seth Sinovic to draw the match at twos.
Kamara again put Sporting in the lead, for good this time, in the 80th minute, when he found himself in space on the right from a broken play that had Columbus complaining that Bernardo Anor was down injured up-field.
Four days later, again at home, a Collin goal in the 35th minute was cancelled out by Camilo’s stunning free-kick just before half-time.
And in Chicago, for Sunday’s early match, two quick goals – both stunning strikes – from Benny Feilhaber and Zusi inside the first ten minutes were enough to see out the result, even though Mike Magee responded before the half-time whistle.
After losing to Toronto back in March, KC stumbled through a pair of scoreless draws – against Chicago and in New England – before racking up a trio of consecutive wins over Montreal and DC at home and away to New York.
Since then, as defending US Open Cup Champions, they were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition in the Fourth Round, losing 0-1 at home to USL PRO affiliates, Orlando City SC.
Kansas City currently sit in second place in the East, on thirty points, a sole point arrears of Montreal, who also have two matches in hand.
Their overall record of eight wins, four draws and four losses – scoring twenty-six goals and conceding nineteen – is hampered by subpar home form, where they have four wins, three draws, and three loses, scoring fifteen through ten matches and conceding ten.
They have lost three of their last seven home matches – to Portland, Seattle, and Montreal.
That March meeting ended somewhat surprisingly, with lowly TFC running out 2-1 victors at the Rogers Centre on a pair of goals from Robert Earnshaw.
Earnshaw snapped up a poor Matt Besler back-pass in the 3rd minute of play and then converted a penalty in the 21st, won when John Bostock was tripped up by Paulo Nagamura in the box, sending the twenty-six thousand in attendance into raptures of disbelief.
Toronto crashed down slightly – a more accurate portent of things to come - falling victim to a quickly taken Jimmy Nielsen free-kick in the 77th, flicked on by Sapong to Bieler, who blasted across the keeper from the right-side of the box.
Danny Califf, who was arguing the free-kick – for which he was booked, was caught up-field by the quickness of the chance, leaving a gap that was devastatingly exploited.
It was a fractious match that saw some seven yellow cards and thirty-four fouls; expect this one to be equally physical.
There have been several roster moves made throughout the course of the season by Coach and General Manager Peter Vermes.
Kei Kamara returned from his loan-spell at Norwich City in the English Premier League, Bobby Convey and Michael Thomas were shipped off to Toronto, Dom Dwyer has returned from his impressive loan at PDL side, Orlando City, having scored fifteen goals in thirteen matches to lead the league in goals, Teal Bunbury has healed from his knee injury - slowly working back into the lineup, while, most recently, CJ Sapong and Kevin Ellis – a left-back who only recently broke into the first team – were sent down to Orlando in hope of getting a run of solid ninety minute performances before the CONCACAF Champions League congests the KC schedule in the coming months.
Fortunately for Kansas City, their American international contingent, Zusi and Besler, were not called into the Gold Cup, though Haitian duo of Mechack Jerome and Peterson Joseph are representing their nation at the tournament.
With plenty to consider, the projected lineup is as follows: Jimmy Nielsen in goal; from right to left – Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic across the back; Lawrence Olum and Uri Rosell will sit in the midfield with Graham Zusi more advanced, roaming from his base in the middle of the park; Soony Saad, Claudio Bieler, and Kei Kamara will form the attacking trident at the cutting end of the pitch.
A few caveats: Paulo Nagamura is currently listed – on July 6 – as ‘Out’ with a left-ankle sprain, should he be fit, he will likely replace Olum, and Benny Feilhaber, who started and scored against Chicago on the weekend, left the match with an injury and his status is unknown. Should he be fit enough to reprise that role as the point of the midfield three, Zusi will likely move up to the left-side of the attack and Kamara will swap over to the right – he alternates regularly between the two flanks mid-match anyways.
Toronto’s old friend, Jacob Peterson, was absent from the bench against Chicago and unused against Vancouver and Columbus, having last appeared against Dallas in the briefest of cameos – do not be surprised if he makes an appearance against his former side.
Then there is Teal, no fan of Canada himself, who could factor from the bench, much as Dwyer is expected to, for a few minutes at least.
KC will be emerging from a three-game week and have a pair of difficult away matches on cue, with trips to Salt Lake and Montreal coming on subsequent weekends, it would not be a complete surprise to see some fringe members of the squad gets minutes against TFC.
A constant threat when facing Sporting is the long throws from Besler, most recently his left-sided effort led to Feilhaber's smashing slice to open the scoring against Chicago.
Besler is not the only threat, as Sinovic too got in on the act against Houston, leading to this Collin goal.
Always a threat from such dead-ball situation is the hulking frame of Frenchman, Colin, who has three goals on the season – good enough for fourth-most on the club, behind Bieler, Zusi, and Kamara.
Here he shrugs off the defending of Jamison Olave – no slouch himself in the physical department – to score against New York.
Toronto will have to mark tight and be constantly on guard, while attempting to limit the number of chances KC gets to fling balls into the box.
Kamara returned from his time in England a more confident striker – surprising, as confidence was never in short supply - scoring four goals since re-debuting against Seattle at the beginning of May. His dynamic abilities, stretching the pitch and cutting in from wide positions, are a constant threat, especially when the very impressive of late Soony Saad is finding him with raking cross-field balls such as this goal against Columbus.
Saad has seen only limited action this campaign – three starts and nine appearances for 332 minutes – but his excellent vision led to Kamara chance above and his endless hustle created the game-winner against DC.
KC are a dangerous enough opponent without considering the poacher-like tendencies of Bieler – eight goals and two assists - and the ever-improving production from Zusi - four goals and five assists this season.
Zusi has been fantastic and has had a golden touch, scoring even when he isn’t trying to – this ‘shot’, he admitted post-match, was merely a wayward cross.
It is odd to say, but lately, KC has struggled defensively – conceding ten goals in their last seven matches – last keeping a clean-sheet in the middle of May.
Their man-marking in the box has been well below their high standards – as Ryan Johnson’s free header for Portland (the first goal the side had allowed from a corner kick since 2011) testifies.
Since then they have conceded at least five goals from set-piece situations, including Camilo direct free-kick, Zimmerman’s header, and both Montreal goals that were manufactured in post-free-kick scrambles, while Seattle’s Djimi Traore gave KC a taste of their own medicine, converting from a long throw at the death.
Late goals have also been a concern, conceding three in the final quarter hour through recent weeks – against Seattle and two in Dallas. Toronto must be wary, as they have scored six in that same time period.
Toronto would be wise to pressure their back-line into bad passes, Nielsen is not the quickest off his line, and it worked well in the last meeting between clubs and against Montreal.
Sinovic’s poor back-pass, much like Besler’s in March was by Earnshaw, was converted by Oduro.
While Arrieta too made Sporting pay for committing too many numbers forward and falling victim to a quick and crafty counter.
Similarly, against Los Angeles, they were twice caught forward and hit on the counter, admittedly though that was a difficult match to approach having flown across the continent after a midweek match in New York.
Watch for potential fireworks in this one. The whole team takes after the fighting spirit of Vermes, who spends the duration of the match barking from the sidelines. Bieler is a cunningly dirty player, who likes to get a dig in when possible – drawing a red card from Montreal’s Alessandro Nesta after he stuck his foot in unnecessarily.
And their constant vocalization – whether berating teammates or whining at the ref – can be quite annoying; Nielsen’s time-wasting so boiled the blood of Juninho that he was goaded into earning this red card for launching the ball at the keeper, who embellished the incident ever-so slightly.
There is a great podcast based out of Kansas City, called Kick the Ball, for those who want a little bit more of an insider view on how Sporting is looking heading into this weekend’s match.
The two meet for the third time on September 21, in Toronto.