Fresh off a resounding victory over New York, Toronto FC takes to the road for a tricky Friday night fixture, away to Sporting KC.
On paper, a 2-0 win over the Red Bulls looks a promising turnaround given TFC’s struggles through a bumpy, irregular kickoff to 2014, but, in truth, it was a much more tenuous win than the score-line indicates.
Once more TFC wasted innumerable chances to pad the early lead and had to survive unhealthy amounts of pressure – and a horrid open-goal miss – to see out the result, before capping it with a late walk-in.
Those concerns remain and Friday’s challenge is a wholly more difficult task than facing New York at the comforts of home.
Sporting KC, defending MLS Cup champions, definitely enjoy the benefits of home advantage – their recent loss to Philadelphia was their first home defeat of the season, not to mention their first at home since losing to the Union back in September of 2013.
Daunting a task as that may seem, it could be said that this is a good time to face Sporting, who have been decimated by international call-ups, injury, and suspensions, in the midst of an incredibly busy run – Friday’s match will be their fourth in fourteen days with another two lined up before May ends.
But, as TFC fans are well aware, indications made on paper seldom play out that way on the pitch; a closer look at the week’s enemy, Sporting KC, is in order.
Head Coach and Technical Director, Peter Vermes, has done a masterful job of re-envisioning this club as they transitioned from the Wizards playing at a baseball diamond, to Sporting who call one of the nicer, state-of-the-art soccer-specific venues their home.
Last season’s charge to the MLS Cup was a just reward for all the work they have done to date.
But if there is any truth in this business, it is that clubs must constantly evolve; resting on one’s laurels is a sure first step to demise.
With that awareness in mind, rather than sit idle, enjoying the plaudits that come with silverware, Vermes continued the evolution of the club with a refresh at selected positions.
KC is constantly on the prowl, looking to stock their stable of relative unknowns with future starters.
Acquisitions such as Brazilian defender Igor Juliao (signed on loan after impressing with Fluminense at the Disney tournament this spring), Spanish midfielders, Toni Duvale and Victor Munoz (picked up after DC passed on signing him, having selected him in the second round of the 2014 SuperDraft), Colombian Jimmy Medranda (acquired at the close of last season), and Uruguayan Alex Martinez (selected in the third round of this past SuperDraft), as well as homegrown products, midfielder Christian Duke (on loan at Oklahoma FC) and defender Erik Palmer-Brown (subject of Juventus transfer interest earlier this year) may not have seen many minutes thus far, but provide ample options should the first team require reinforcement.
Jimmy Nielsen’s retirement presented an obvious gap to fill; his replacement, former second-string keeper, Eric Kronberg, has proved equal to the task, but, had he not, Andy Gruenebaum, former Columbus starter – an off-season acquisition, is equally capable.
The departure of Teal Bunbury, shipped off to New England, opened a starting position for Dom Dwyer, who exhibited his worth on loan with Orlando City, closing out the season with a strong run in MLS.
While Sal Zizzo, who fits perfectly with Vermes’ system, acquired from Portland via trade, provides another wide attacking option – a shrewd addition.
Aside from those rather minor changes, the side remains the same.
But come Friday, Vermes has a bit of selection headache on his hands.
Matt Besler and Lawrence Olum are away on national team duty with the US and Kenya, respectively, Ike Opara is out for the season with an ankle injury, while Aurelien Collin has been nursing a recurring hamstring concern for much of the season, leaving the side with seventeen-year old Palmer-Brown as the only recognized centre-back - and he was sent off in his debut against Chicago on Sunday, exacerbating the squad deficiency.
The debutant was trotted out in a previously unseen 3-5-2 formation that could appear again come Friday, though that is difficult to predict.
The most desirable scenario, for KC at least, would see both Collin and defensive midfielder, Uri Rosell, who was also unavailable last weekend, be deemed fit enough to take up the centre-back duties.
Making matters even worse is that Graham Zusi too is away with the Americans in preparation for the upcoming World Cup.
All things considered, their projected lineup is as follows: Eric Kronberg in goal; from right to left – Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Uri Rosell, and Seth Sinovic across the back; Paulo Nagamura sitting deep with Toni Duvale and Benny Feilhaber further ahead in the midfield; with an attacking trio of Jacob Peterson, Dom Dwyer, and Sal Zizzo up top.
Of course, as a projection that is entirely speculation, based on if all players are available and looking at this one match in isolation. With another match against New York set for Tuesday of next week and a trip to DC next Saturday, the possibilities multiply.
This congruence of incidence – lack of centre-backs and volume of matches – makes this a very difficult call to make. It is entirely possible that Vermes throws a curve-ball, say trotting out the 3-5-2 again, or rests some players in the midst of this fierce run of games.
Up top, CJ Sapong, Claudio Bieler, and Soony Saad are all recognized first teamers who have found minutes hard to come by; outside defender Kevin Ellis has been recalled from his loan to Oklahoma, not to mention all the options on the periphery mentioned above – is this their chance to shine? Who knows?
Vermes himself was tight-lipped on the potential availability of Collin and Rosell, "I would say both of those guys are progressing forward. I can't speak right now [Tuesday], until Friday, about what it looks like for either of them. The hope is to get them both back, but we've got to be smart about it because we've got a quick turnaround on Tuesday. So we'll have to make the decision based on both games, not one."
But managers have been known to play possum when it suits them.
Lineup confusion aside, Sporting enter in an odd position: having lost their last two matches on the trot - one must look back to August of last season for two-straight losses; the last time they lost three-straight in the league was May of 2012.
They currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference on seventeen points from eleven matches, three points behind conference leaders New England.
Sporting started the season slow, with a loss away to Seattle on opening day – courtesy a 94th minute Chad Barrett strike – and a draw at home to Dallas – where Collin and Matt Hedges exchanged headers in the final nine minutes of play.
Mitigating those results was their participation in the CONCACAF Champions League, losing at the Quarterfinal stage to Mexican side Cruz Azul, 5-2 on aggregate.
With that distraction gone, they bunkered down, going on a four-match unbeaten run with wins over San Jose (1-0, Dwyer from the spot), Colorado (2-3, Zusi put them ahead before a pair of Vicente Sanchez penalty kicks were followed by a Feilhaber equalizer and a Dwyer winner in stoppage-time), and Montreal (4-0, Calum Mallace’s own-goal was followed by three in the last twenty minutes – first from Collin, then a pair from Dwyer), as well as a scoreless draw at home to Salt Lake, which they probably would have won were it not for a standout performance from Salties keeper, Jeff Attinella.
That streak would end the next week, 2-0 at New England, when the revving Revolution nabbed two in stoppage-time (from former KC striker, Bunbury, and Lee Nguyen from the spot) after Collin was red-carded in the 74th minute.
They would respond back at home with a 2-0 win of their own over Columbus, notching goals through Peterson and Bieler, before traveling to Montreal after a byeweek for a 0-3 result, taking advantage of an early red card to Collen Warner – Dwyer notched a further pair, while Nagamura netted the other.
That match in Montreal, on a Saturday, began the current gauntlet of matches.
The next Wednesday they would lose to Philadelphia at home, 1-2, with Danny Cruz putting the Union in front at the start of the second half. Sporting would find an equalizer with ten minutes remaining, but Philly’s Cristian Maidana would re-instate the lead within a minute, allowing the visitors the shock.
Then this past Sunday a pair of early penalties – inside the first fifteen minutes - followed by the 64th minute dismissal of Palmer-Brown for a pair of bookable offences was too much of a deficit to overcome, despite Dwyer finding some consolation in the 68th minute with his fourth goal in their last three matches.
Part Two will be posted later today, reviewing the game films for strengths and weaknesses, and highlighting some points of interest.