Fans in Toronto were treated to a rare home win on Tuesday night at BMO Field – something not seen on those shores since the middle of July, when Toronto FC beat Houston, 4-2, a span of five matches.
Unfortunately for some, that win did not involve TFC; rather it was the Canadian National Team out-dueling the Jamaican side in an entertaining match – again, something not seen too often in Toronto recently.
Now, any hopes of ending that horrid run of form – three losses and two draws – will have to wait until next weekend, when TFC welcomes Chivas USA to town; this weekend a different challenge is at hand, a familiar one at that.
Three weeks ago everything seemed stable in Toronto; granted, TFC had lost a tough outing in Kansas City – hardly a shock, though the performance was less than satisfying, but it came on the heels of road wins in Montreal and Columbus, the club (hopefully), finally had turned a corner after a busy summer stretch.
But then an unsettling draw against Chicago, with former TFC strikers notching each of the two Fire goals, evidenced a flash of ghosts from the past – last-minute concessions. A week later, following a dismal loss to New England, those ghosts resurfaced with a vengeance.
Since Greg Vanney took over the reins of the club from Ryan Nelsen, the atmosphere amongst the crowd has plummeted, not helped by losing a pair of matches in a virtual twelve-point week against Philadelphia that finally pushed TFC out of the playoffs.
Eight games remain that will determine a season; eight; has a nice ring to it.
Doom-saying aside, anyone who honestly expected the jaunt to the playoffs to be a walk in the park – granted, getting carried away is what fans do - were sorely mistaken; one can acquire players relatively quickly, but turning the fortunes of a club requires a more patient approach.
This is a test; of the players, the new coach, the organization and the fan base. The test continues on Saturday in Chicago against the Fire.
Given it has been just three weeks since that last meeting, much of what was written then holds true, but still, a closer look at this week’s enemy, the Chicago Fire is in order…
In the two matches Chicago has played since that last meeting, they have won one – 1-0 at home against Dallas - and lost one – 2-1 away to New England last weekend.
Two weeks ago, Dallas were the form side of the league, riding a ten-match unbeaten run, but Chicago put and end to that, taking their third-straight Brimstone Cup, with recently-acquired (and former TFC) striker Robert Earnshaw popping up on the end of a Jeff Larentowicz cross in the 83rd minute to snatch the victory.
In New England, another newcomer, former Montreal attacker, Sanna Nyassi, gave Chicago the lead in the 28th minute, only for Diego Fagundez to level before half-time and Charlie Davies to find the winner on the hour, running onto a lovely Jermaine Jones pass to ensure the points stayed at home.
Interestingly, Jones had been the subject of transfer attention from both sides before joining the Revolution after a blind draw – not that Chicago was unhappy about how the process played out (note – sarcasm).
After Wednesday’s results, Chicago sit in ninth place in the East, on 29 points from 26 matches, seven points adrift of the final playoff spot and four points behind TFC.
They enter in a sort of holding pattern, a draw-win-loss, followed by a draw-win-loss, which would imply that this match would be yet another draw – Chicago leads the league with fourteen ties, one shy of equally the MLS single-season record.
Chicago are unbeaten in their last six home matches, stretching back to a match against Seattle at the start of June. They have won their last two – over Dallas and New York – drawing the other four.
Both sides desperately need the points to keep themselves in the picture.
August 23 Toronto 2: Chicago 2
An own-goal in the third minute had TFC sitting pretty for most of the match, Justin Morrow’s cross from the left kicked up off the outstretched leg of Bakary Soumare to loop over Sean Johnson and settle in the far-side of the goal.
Toronto would have plenty of chances to pad that lead, a combination of an ever-improving Johnson and some wasteful finishing, as well as a goal-line clearance from Lovel Palmer would prevent them from doing so.
Then, five minutes after entering the match, Robert Earnshaw would pop up in-between a pair of TFC defenders, ghosting off the back-shoulder of Nick Hagglund to meet a Grant Ward cross from the right with a flicked header that beat Joe Bendik in the 70th minute.
Toronto would respond shortly thereafter, Gilberto racing onto a poked ball forward from Luke Moore, outpacing Jeff Larentowicz, and rounding Johnson to right-foot into a gaping net in the 79th.
But as has so often been the case in Toronto, a moment of lax marking at the death would prove costly, yet another former TFC striker, Quincy Amarikwa, unmarked at the back-post, would latch on to a Lovel Palmer ball from the right to right-foot an acrobatic finish with replacement left-back Jackson caught ball-watching.
The draw extended two streaks for Chicago, who are now unbeaten in their last ten against Toronto, having taken points from their last five visits.
Frank Yallop, who took over the Chicago managerial post in the off-season, has continued to evolve his side whenever possible. Losing out on Jones was a blow, but along with acquiring Earnshaw, Nyassi, and Razvan Cocis, they also inked French forward, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, a blast from the past for Liverpool fans.
Despite the changing roster, alterations to the starting lineup come a little slower and Yallop is a coach who likes certain things from his side.
As such, their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left – Lovel Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz, Bakary Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares across the back-line; Grant Ward, Razvan Cocis, Matt Watson, and Alex through the midfield, with Quincy Amarikwa paired up top with Sanna Nyassi.
Chicago’s playoff hopes suffered a body-blow this week, when it was announced that the hip problem that has limited Mike Magee’s action will force him under the knife and out of action for the next six to eight months – ouch.
Nyassi did well against New England last weekend and Dallas the week before, repeatedly breaking behind the back-lines, but it is equally likely that Harrison Shipp could take that role, playing slightly tucked behind Amarikwa.
Earnshaw and Sinama-Pongolle may not be ready to start, but Earnshaw has been clinical from the bench, while Sinama-Pongolle scored against the Dallas reserves before signing.
The midfield could see plenty of alterations. Patrick Nyarko is returning to fitness after missing a large chunk of the season – he tends to play on the left, which would line him up opposite Dominic Oduro, a fellow Ghanaian and Twi-speaker – an interesting confrontation should it come to be.
Ward has been in and out of the lineup; should Nyassi not get the start up front, he could appear in Ward’s place or on the left, while Shipp is another candidate to take up a wide midfield slot. Alex provides more experience than the rookie, but with desperation nearing, it may be time to give the impressive Shipp a chance to shine. Further complicating matters, Benji Joya is apparently gaining fitness, but has yet to return to the lineup.
Chris Ritter, he who suffered the wrath of Luke Moore’s elbow in the first meeting, has also seen his time dry up with Yallop leaning on veterans, but with Larentowicz commissioned to the back-line, there may be space for Ritter’s steel and hustle in the middle.
Patrick Ianni could take up that centre-back spot for Larentowicz, though given the Fire Captain (Larentowicz) has been at the back for the last three matches; that should not change.
Toronto will need to hold firm against a desperate Chicago side, who will be eager to take advantage of TFC’s struggles to put themselves in a better position. Doneil Henry’s yellow card will see him miss the match, while Ashtone Morgan is still listed as suspended, though he was reported to have served it against Philadelphia – perhaps by him returning to Canada, the match did not count towards his penalty.
It appears as though TFC will be getting several injured players back, which should alleviate some of those concerns, but having to reconfigure the back-line again is never a promising start.
Chicago is very dangerous in the box, even without the services of Magee. Amarikwa has revitalized his career this season, registering seven goals and four assists so far. He is tenacious, energetic, and pesky, eager to make runs into space and enjoys battling for position.
But what Toronto must be acutely aware of, is his ability to pop up and get on the end of anything, as he did in the last meeting:
With Earnshaw in the picture, Amarikwa wisely hangs off the back-side, waiting to pounce on anything to come his way; which he did with aplomb, striking a venomous right-footed side-volley past Bendik to equalize.
Not only will Toronto’s fractured back-line, especially the full-backs, have to keep a close eye on the movements of Amarikwa, but once Earnshaw joins the fray, they will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep them both in check.
Rather than revisit his header against Toronto, consider his game-winner against Dallas:
Centre-back Matt Hedges is drawn way out wide to close down Larentowicz on a partially cleared corner. Earnshaw hangs around in the space he vacated, waiting, before flicking a deft finish inside the far-post.
One can only hope that TFC have learned their lessons, even if the much-needed defensive assistant coach is yet to join the side.
On the other side of the ball, Chicago are vulnerable.
Diego Fagundez equalized for New England on a goal that will have made Yallop cringe:
Much like Hedges, Soumare tracks out of position to chase down an over-hit corner. Whenever a centre-back goes walkabouts, it leaves space at the back and sends the rest of the defenders scrambling to stay compact – see Andrew Wenger’s goal for Philadelphia on the weekend for a similar event, with Henry tracking out wide, causing confusion in the middle.
Palmer and Larentowicz are drawn to the near-post, leaving midfielder Cocis alone at the back, unaware of Fagundez lurking.
The goal was the product of New England’s willingness to get – and keep – numbers in the box; a lesson Toronto should apply when given the chance to get bodies in the box.
Aside from that, as Gilberto can attest, the Chicago defense is a little slow when caught up-field, opening the possibility for balls over the top or put into space to expose them for pace.
Charlie Davies game-winner for New England required a wonderful, strong run from Jermaine Jones, but once sprung, no Chicago defender was going to catch him:
Toronto definitely has the speed – in Oduro and Jackson, but neither is the finisher that Davies is. Gilberto can expose that flaw, with Michael Bradley the most obvious provider, though Luke Moore did pretty well in the last meeting.
The two clubs have met eighteen times in MLS play, with Toronto winning three, Chicago eight, and seven resulting in draws. Eight of those games have been played in Chicago, where the Fire have won four and drawn four – TFC has never won in their travels, as such Chicago is unbeaten at home.
This will be the third meeting of the season, each ending in a draw.
Their last meeting in Chicago, back at the start of July, was a 1-1 draw – Toronto were in the ascendancy, only for the controversial red card to Moore to change the tide; Chicago had won the previous three, stretching back to a scoreless draw at the end of 2010.
Toronto needs to show some initiative and some impetus – the word passion comes to mind, but that would be a disservice to the players, they want to win. Toronto must also show a little patience and awareness, while working together. The lone wolf runs against Philadelphia are unlikely to provide salvation. They’ve gotten themselves into this mess together, now, together is how they must get out of it.
Twelve-year veteran of the club, Logan Pause announced this week that he would be retiring at the end of the season. Drafted by the Fire prior to the 2003 season, Pause, though his minutes have waned, has played a crucial role of grounding the club. One club players are rare, and his teary-eyed announcement will herald the end of an era for the Fire. While never the flashiest of players – as three goals in his 281 league appearances will attest – Pause provided the stability and energy in the midfield that every club requires… In dark times such as these in Toronto, with managers and players leaving left and right, one despairs that TFC will never have a single player who means as much to them as Pause does to Chicago.