Now that the midseason circus has come and gone – Friendlies are a neat change of pace, but a little bit of creative scheduling would serve the club’s long-term goals more appropriately – Toronto FC returns to action for their eighth match in a month on Saturday when they welcome Sporting KC to BMO Field.
Though they have lost just once since the league returned from the World Cup break, a haul of seven points from six matches is hardly anything to shout from the rooftops about; though, of course there is something to be said about gutting through a tough run of fixtures without stumbling.
When the schedule came out, it was obvious that this crucial stretch, while not make-or-break, would be a key indicator of how the campaign was shaping up for the rebuilt side. Given how the first half of the season has transpired, the next two matches – home to Kansas City and away to DC - will be important milestones along the way.
At the exact halfway point of their season, TFC sits in third place in the East on 26 points from seventeen matches. The two sides ahead of them: Sporting KC and DC United.
While neither side can be caught over the next week – KC is nine points ahead and DC eight, to stay within reach or, perhaps, make up a little bit of ground is a worthy aim.
With five matches remaining in each of the three months left in the season once the calendar turns, Toronto have plenty of matches left to assert their position, but there is no time like the present to make a statement of intent.
Toronto and KC have already met once this season, back in May; much of what was written then – Parts One and Two – is still valid, but still, a closer look at this weekend’s enemy, Sporting KC, is in order.
When last they met, KC entered on a downswing, having lost two straight matches – circumstances this time around could not be any more different.
Sporting are the form team in the league after collecting two wins last week, they will enter Toronto on Saturday riding a variety of positive streaks and hungry for a modicum of revenge for what happened back in May.
Winners of their last three, unbeaten in six league matches – stretching back to the end of May – a run that includes five wins, and having won their last four on the road, Kansas City, who sit in first place in the East on 35 points from twenty matches, will present a formidable challenge for TFC.
The draw in the last meeting was the midpoint of a five-match winless run. They would draw four days later, 1-1 against New York, before closing out the month with a 1-0 loss in DC – their last.
That the poor run coincided with a hectic schedule of their own – six matches in 21 days – no doubt played a role in those struggles. As soon as they got a solid week of rest under their belts they would go on to win, 0-2 away to Houston, in their final match before the league went on hiatus.
Their break would last just twelve days, as a pair of US Open Cup matches littered the schedule, bypassing Minnesota United FC 2-0 in the Fourth Round before falling to Portland 1-3 in the Fifth.
KC would have their revenge against the Timbers when they met in the league three days after their open cup contest, winning 0-1 in Portland on a goal from Lawrence Olum in the 24th minute that held up for the rest of the ninety.
The following weekend they would draw 1-1 back home against Chicago – Dom Dwyer taking the lead in the 33rd minute only for Mike Magee to level seven minutes later, before extending their road winning streak to three and then four a week later over the span of four days – each by a score-line of 1-2, in Montreal (a Dwyer brace either side of a Marco Di Vaio strike) and then Columbus (CJ Sapong and Benny Feilhaber at the end of each half; an Igor Juliao own-goal in between).
This past weekend, on less than three days rest, they took on the Los Angeles Galaxy in Kansas City, winning 2-1. Feilhaber opening the scoring with a picture-perfect free-kick in the tenth minute and Lawrence Olum doubled the lead in the 61st from a scrappy play; Robbie Keane drew one back for LA in the 79th minute.
On Wednesday night they fell 1-4 to Manchester City in a summer friendly of their own, so the two will enter with similar amounts of rest.
May 23 – Sporting KC 2: Toronto FC 2
After a tight first half, Dwyer would find the breakthrough two minutes into the second after winning a ball above the TFC box, moving in-field before finding Sal Zizzo in space down the left-side of the area. Zizzo returned the favour, with a pull-back to the heart of the box, where Dwyer had found space to hit a sweeping left-footer across to the bottom right-side of goal.
There have been some tough nights for TFC in Kansas and this one looked to be another when Steven Caldwell was sent off in the 63rd minute after catching Toni Dovale with a high boot – he held his hand up and apologized immediately, but the referee had already reached for his back pocket.
Surprisingly, Toronto would equalize four minutes later when Collen Warner pounced on a loose touch near the centre-circle, playing up to Jermain Defoe, who managed to play into the path of Luke Moore before getting fouled – Moor would beat Eric Kronberg with a bending left-footer; his second goal for his new side.
Another referee’s decision would go against Toronto when Doneil Henry was called for a penalty having collided with Juliao in the Toronto box – Dwyer would convert the penalty kick, reinstating Sporting’s lead.
Down a goal and a man, Toronto would find a way to level in the 91st minute when a clipped Daniel Lovitz free-kick was headed away by Dwyer to Nick Hagglund, who lifted a ball from the right to the edge of the six yard box, where Bradley Orr would flick the equalizer past Kronberg for a 2-2 draw.
Kansas City has struggled to field a consistent lineup all season, whether through injury, suspension, or international commitments. While several players are currently listed as out, they will, for the most part, field a first-choice eleven.
The most notable absence is goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, who recently suffered a broken finger in training, though "back-up" Andy Gruenebaum is hardly a step down in quality.
They have made a few roster moves since that last meeting with Uri Rosell transferring to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon (or Clube de Portugal) and a trio of midfielders, Honduran Jorge Claros, Swiss-Filipino Martin Steuble, and Michael Kafari joined the club, while Matt Besler and Graham Zusi reconfirmed their commitment to the side with long-term, designated player deals prior to Saturday’s match against Los Angeles.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Andy Gruenebaum in goal; from right to left – Igor Juliao, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic across the back; Lawrence Olum will sit in the midfield with Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi further ahead, with a frontline of CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, and Soony Saad.
The most likely alterations will depend on the fitness of two players.
Paolo Nagamura has missed their last three matches with an ankle sprain, he is listed as questionable and should he be available, Zusi would move up to the left-side of the attack to make space for him alongside side Feilhaber in midfield.
It is possible that recent-addition Claros could make his first MLS appearance after a solid run out against Manchester City, as a defensive midfielder he would be a candidate to take Olum’s spot in front of the back-four.
Sapong and Saad are replaceable parts and it would be of little surprise if Jacob Peterson, Toni Dovale, or Sal Zisso were to see the field in their stead, while last season’s highly-touted draft pick Mikey Lopez recently made his MLS debut in the midfield for the side.
Toronto’s primary concern this match must be to keep a lid on Feilhaber, who has been incredible recently for Sporting. With two goals and an assist in the last two matches, Feilhaber has pulled the strings for KC and the path to victory lies in shutting him down – easier said than done.
His free-kick against LA on the weekend was glorious – do not give up cheap fouls within range with him in such form, while the corner kick he hit for Sapong opener in Columbus was excellent.
But overshadowing both of those plays was his late winner against the Crew:
Kansas City are always a threat from set-pieces and a key aspect of garnering points against them involves limiting those opportunities.
Added to the threat of Feilhaber is the goal-scoring feats of Dwyer, whose effervescence is more than troublesome. Under Peter Vermes, Sporting have adopted a high-pressing style that is embodied by Dwyer’s endless work rate – his goal against Chicago was an example of the consequences of getting caught on the ball:
With fourteen goals on the season, tied for second-most in the league, and hungry to make a point after being overlooked for the all-star game, Dwyer must be watched carefully and TFC must keep their passing around the back crisp, minimizing his chances to pounce – he has not scored in his last two; he has yet to go three games without a goal this season.
Then of course there is the dreaded long throw from Besler:
And when he is not around to launch service into the box, Sinovic poses a similar threat – leading to Olum’s goal against Portland.
While the quantitative aspects of their various streaks seem daunting, there are holes to be exploited.
Leaving aside the subjective analysis that their four away wins came against less than top notch opponents – Houston, Portland, Montreal, and Columbus are hardly the class of the league at the moment – Sporting has conceded goals in each of their last four matches.
It may have just been a single goal per and they have suffered a little misfortune of their own (a pair of debatable red cards and an own-goal) but they are not the imperious side that the runs indicate.
They have also required a bit of luck, with two victories the result of late goals – Feilhaber’s vicious strike and capitalizing on a moment of indecision by Montreal’s back-line.
Sporting are vulnerable to defensive breakdown on set-pieces or their follow-ups. Part of that is due to the constant turnover they have undergone on their back-line – something that may be coming to an end with the worst of the injury bug and international duty over – but Toronto would be wise to maintain pressure and commit runners into the box, similar to the play that led to Orr’s late equalizer in the last meeting.
Against Los Angeles, it was just such a play that led to the Galaxy’s goal, when a recycled corner kick was headed back in by Baggio Husidic, flicked on by Bradford Jamieson IV, finding Robbie Keane in space down the right-side of the box:
That a goal-scorer like Keane is allowed to be lost in the crowd at a moment such as that will have driven Vermes crazy.
Toronto will be without the services of suspended Jermain Defoe, but Luke Moore, Gilberto, and Jonathan Osorio should be able to find space for open looks if they stay alert and Toronto maintains spells of pressure.
It was not just Keane who was able to find space to operate – Marco Di Vaio, another dangerous forward who should not be given free rein, was able to drift off the back-line as they collapsed on Justin Mapp after a hopeful cross from Patrice Bernier, dropping into the space at the top of the area to loop a header in, tying the match at ones:
KC midfielders Olum and Zusi were guilty of not covering that space in Montreal and the high slot on such stretch plays seems a good place to exploit – with Defoe out, the responsibility falls to Moore and Gilberto, both of whom have goals from that area already this season, while late runs from the midfield may be worth the risk.
Given how much KC likes to press forward, they can be caught in possession, allowing for quick, devastating counterattacks – turning their aggression against them; TFC has plenty of pace to cause issues.
In Chicago, Mike Magee was able to equalize when Alex picked the pocket of Sinovic, drawing Collin out as Magee was slipped down the left-side of the area:
Moore’s equalizer in Kansas City came from a similar play after Warner forced a turnover and strode up-field – if it worked before, it is worth trying again. Dominic Oduro has the pace to trouble the sturdiest of defenses, while Jackson, if fit, complements him on the opposite flank.
The two have met nineteen times in league play with TFC winning four, KC ten, and five ending level. Nine have taken place in Toronto, where TFC and Sporting have three wins each, the other three ending even.
Sporting won the most recent meeting in Toronto; 1-2 last September on a CJ Sapong brace either side of a Darel Russell strike.
KC are unbeaten in their last three matches against Toronto, stretching back to last season’s home opener when TFC won 2-1 at the SkyDome, when Robert Earnshaw and John Bostock impressed. They have won seven of the last ten meetings, regardless of location.
The two will meet for the third and final time this regular season on August 16 back in Kansas City.