If one needed any proof that this season’s Toronto FC is a different animal, last weekend’s 2-3 win in Columbus provided the perfect example.
That’s not to say all is well and fine, there are plenty of flaws to be addressed, but in years past that was a game that Toronto lost; no doubt about it. Taking the lead, only to concede a dicey penalty kick in a soul-sapping nature, mere ticks before the half-time whistle; fighting back to retake the advantage, only to drop a clanger in allowing Justin Meram’s cross to find the back of the net.
But undaunted they fought on, winning the match in the end off a set-piece – faithful readers of Know Your Enemy may recall this line from the Crew preview: "Toronto has failed to make the most of set-pieces this season and with a run of crucial matches coming up, they are due"
Due indeed; though Luke Moore, who was instrumental, in his own relaxed way, with a goal and two assists, was a surprise target for Collen Warner’s excellent corner.
Sweeping the season series against Trillium Cup foes the Crew for the first time is further proof that this is a changed side from the one that bumbled through the first seven years of its existence.
Prior to that match, it was recognized that the next month, like the month before that and the month before that, would be crucial to TFC’s season. In truth, every game is important, all points are equally weighted, but the context of those points varies with each situation.
There are an infinite number of possibilities for how a season may play out and so much can depend on what happens elsewhere in the league – for example, Toronto’s rough July could have proved costly, but the clubs around them failed to take advantage, thus offering a slight reprieve for the struggles.
As the season winds down – Toronto has thirteen matches remaining – the forgiveness for such error lessens; points become precious, though their value has not changed at all.
Wins in Columbus and Montreal have them in a good position: in sole possession of third in the East on 32 points from 21 games, with a four-point cushion on New York and at least two games in hand on their closest pursuers.
Saturday will bring with it a familiar challenge; a club Toronto knows well having already played them twice this season, most recently just three weeks ago.
Another trip to Kansas City, hardly the most welcoming of venues, but should a win come their way, yet another touchstone on the way to redemption will have been reached, as it would be their tenth of 2014, tying the most the club has ever won in a single league season.
Much of what was written before still stands – it has been a matter of scant weeks after all, but still, a closer look at this weekend’s enemy, Sporting KC, is in order…
Kansas City enter Saturday’s match sitting atop the Eastern Conference on 39 points from 23 matches, two points ahead of DC United.
They have played two matches since the last meeting between the clubs at BMO Field at the end of July, failing to pick up full points in either.
Less than a week after beating TFC in Toronto, Kansas City returned home to face Philadelphia in a Friday night encounter, drawing 1-1 with the Union.
Graham Zusi had given the hosts the lead in the 54th minute, sweeping a shot under Zac MacMath after a poor back-header fell to Toni Dovale, who poked him down the right-side of the area. But Union newcomer Brian Brown would respond in the 71st minute with a sharp header from a left-sided Gaddis cross with pretty much his first touch of the game.
The draw ended KC’s four-match winning streak, but extended their unbeaten run to eight matches. That streak too, as well as their five-match road winning streak, would fall the following Sunday, when Sporting lost 2-0 in Vancouver.
A horrible miscommunication between Igor Juliao and goalkeeper, Andy Gruenebaum led to the opening goal in the 17th minute, when the full-back attempted to cushion a header back to his keeper from a searching Pedro Morales long ball; Gruenebaum had come rushing off his line to collect and Juliao’s header went over him and bounced into the open net.
The Whitecaps would add a second in the 39th minute, when Matias Laba intercepted a weak Matt Besler pass and played up to Morales, who skipped over a desperate lunge from the Sporting captain to burst towards goal, squaring to Darren Mattocks, who swept a finish past Gruenebaum.
Vancouver nearly added a third before half-time, only for Aurelien Collin’s desire to clear a ball off the goal-line. He would not be so fortunate in the 84th minute, when the Frenchman tangled with Omar Salgado in the box, dragging the forward to the ground to concede a penalty kick, at least that was the referee's interpretation of it.
Having replaced Gruenebaum at half, Jon Kempin would come up huge on the save, denying Mattocks low to his right, scant consolation in a match where KC’s ego undoubtedly took a knock.
Thus Kansas City will enter Saturday’s match winless through two matches.
July 26 Toronto 1: Kansas City 2
A crucial Eastern Conference match up began with Toronto taking the game to visiting KC, running rampant through the opening passages. It was Jackson who opened the scoring after sixteen minutes, latching onto a lovely poked ball from Dominic Oduro to round Andy Gruenebaum and slot into the gaping net.
KC’s night appeared to go from bad to worse, when Aurelien Collin was caught flat-footed, taking down Gilberto who was clear on goal, but the referee – and later the head of PRO, Peter Walton, did not deem there to have been sufficient contact to warrant the calling of a foul and the presumed due red card.
Toronto would hit the post twice – through Nick Hagglund and Oduro - before the half-time whistle offered Sporting some reprieve.
KC would use that break to settle themselves, emerging from the tunnel to level the match in the 48th minute, when a scramble in the box fell to Graham Zusi sitting, waiting to pounce, at the top of the box, side-footing into the top of the net.
A physical encounter that saw some eight yellow cards, Kansas City would eventually see red, Matt Besler receiving his second booking of the match in the 75th minute, but a former Toronto player would strike with the dagger, despite KC being reduced to ten men.
Jacob Peterson would be the beneficiary of a neat back-heeled pass from Dom Dwyer in the 80th minute, right-footing a low shot past Joe Bendik to win the match after a deflected cross led to yet another scramble in the Toronto box.
Kansas could consider themselves fortunate to have walked away with the full points.
Sporting have struggled with injuries all season long, resulting in 23 different lineups in each of their 23 matches.
And the injury to Gruenebaum that saw him leave the match in Vancouver at half-time will likely result in a 24th straight different starting eleven. Eric Kronberg is still out, so Kempin looks set to make his first MLS start.
Their projected starting eleven is as follows: Jon Kempin in goal; from right to left – Igor Juliao, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic across the back-line; Jorge Claros sitting in the three-man midfield with Benny Feilhaber and Mikey Lopez further ahead; Jacob Peterson, Dom Dwyer, and Graham Zusi will span the front three.
Despite the injuries, they have plenty of options.
Kevin Ellis and Erik Palmer-Brown are options on the back-line, but there is little reason to stray from the aforementioned starters.
Lawrence Olum will have returned from international duty for Kenya, so he should be available, but the recently-arrived Honduran Claros has done well, so should retain his spot.
Swiss midfielder, Martin Steuble has seen limited action since joining the club in recent weeks, while the likes of Sal Zisso, Soony Saad, CJ Sapong, and Toni Dovale are all candidates for the attacking spots.
With this being the third preview, there is little more to say about Kansas City and their ways – that, and they’ve only scored one goal since the last meeting.
It did however provide a valuable lesson in how clinical Sporting can be in capitalizing on mistakes from their opponent.
The play in question began with a cross-field ball from Benny Feilhaber – their ability to switch the point of attack and use the width of the pitch is a threat; a weak header from Philadelphia defender Ray Gaddis allows Dovale to get on the ball, slipping in Zusi for a simple finish:
Noteworthy from the above play, is that Zusi was technically the left-sided of the attacking three, but his ability to drift – and the freedom to do so - allowed KC to overload that side of the defense.
One is never quite sure where Kansas City players will roam to on the pitch, requiring defenders to be very alert and midfielders to track their runners faithfully, lest one be caught short-handed.
It is a tact that caught Toronto in the last meeting.
Take their first goal, again scored by Zusi - he has scored two of their last three goals, finding his netting-form after a quiet first half of the season:
Zusi begins the play, but both Feilhaber and Lopez, the central midfielders, thrust into the box alongside, even ahead, of Dwyer. Then Sapong arrives late from his flank, leaving four players for the four-man back-line to cover and Zusi as the floating fifth and the eventual goal-scorer.
Now, both Warner and Michael Bradley could have done more on that play – picking up and shutting down danger at the top of the box is their role on such scrambles; further proof of how KC takes advantage of gaps in the oppositions game. They must do better in this meeting.
Outnumbering is one thing – defenders will always struggle when outnumbered – but being the sharper of the combatants is not such a valid excuse.
Kansas City’s second goal, Peterson’s winner, was further proof of how devastating Sporting can be to a sluggish defense with their quick thinking.
It all began with a deflected cross that disrupts Toronto’s plan. The back-line had dropped off, anticipating a cross, leaving the space at the top of the area for Peterson to touch forward to Dwyer, sending Bradley Orr and Doneil Henry into panic mode, neither can get a touch and Dwyer’s neat roll-back finds Peterson for the winner:
Toronto will have to limit their exposure and react quicker on the weekend.
Dwyer has been enduring his longest goal-less drought of the season, now at five matches, and he will be eager to end that spell – watch him most carefully.
On the other side of the ball, the same old KC weaknesses have been exploited once again.
The first goal in Vancouver was mostly a fluke, but there is something to be said for the cost of having a new keeper in goal, possibly contributing to the miscommunication that resulted in the own-goal. Sporting will have yet another new keeper in against Toronto, so pressuring the back-line, asking questions of them, is a worthwhile endeavour.
But it was the second goal that proved more applicable in terms of something that could be targeted – no sense in relying on an own-goal.
By granting their full-backs license to rampage forward, Kansas City open themselves up to counterattacks, especially when turnovers happen near the centre line. In Vancouver, Laba, a ball-hound extraordinaire, cuts out a Besler pass, setting them scrambling; once his quick attempt to make amends with a tackle is bypassed by Morales, the damage is all but done.
Toronto has shown all season it's very capable of forcing those turnovers and breaking quickly – they did so for their first goal in the initial meeting between the sides – and that was before adding Oduro, who has grown into his provider role. He’s not there yet, but as he learns tendencies, he is a candidate to rack up assists. Though he didn't get an assist he was a big part of the turnover and quick break that led to Toronto's first goal in Columbus last week.
The goal Sporting conceded against Philadelphia showed another of their weaknesses – marking men in the box. Brown calls for the ball early and then slips in behind Ellis to get on the end of Gaddis’ cross, powering his header in:
The mantra of ‘commit men into the box and good things will happen’ is applicable here; aside from the strikers – Moore has been a welcome addition to the club and Bright Dike’s fitness should add another dimension for the stretch run – both Jonathan Osorio and Bradley need to pop up on such chances.
Both meetings between the clubs have been hard-fought, controversial encounters; expect more of the same. Peter Vermes will not have been pleased with the lacklustre performance from Kansas City and will have read his side the riot act about competing for every second on the pitch.
The two have met twenty times in league play with Kansas City winning eleven, Toronto four, and five ending as draws. Ten of those matches have been played in KC, where Sporting have won seven and drawn two, TFC’s lone win coming back in 2009, when Jim Brennan scored a screamer and an Amado Guevara brace was enough to overpower two from Davy Arnaud, winning 2-3 on the night in that bizarre baseball diamond turned narrow pitch.
Sporting have won three of the last four meetings between the clubs, but Toronto is unbeaten in trips to KC this season – for what it’s worth – they are a different club and so past results must be taken with a grain of sugar (sweetening their chances compared to history).
Sporting are every bit an elite team in this league, but their home form in not as impressive as it should be, with just four wins in eleven matches at Sporting Park. Yes, they have only lost once – to Philadelphia back in May – but six draws has decreased what should by right be a higher point haul from home.
This match is there to be had if TFC stays tuned in for the full ninety and has some luck come their way. Should Toronto win, it will claw them back into the reckoning for the top of the conference, while further separating them from the chasing pack. The context for these points is ripe with possibility.