Sport is such a funny beast.
A few weeks ago, Toronto FC looked a sure thing to make their first appearance in the MLS playoffs, sitting pretty in third place with games in hand and all.
Fast-forward and they have plummeted, riding a three-game losing streak down to seventh in the East, three points off the dividing line. Last weekend’s controversial 1-1 draw in Chicago may have ended the losses, though extending the winless run to six, but this was not the time to take a break.
Or maybe it was.
Ideally, Toronto would have all but secured their position and been able to use the next three matches, all against Western opposition, as a chance to rest some weary bones and brace for the playoffs. That they have a run of three cross-conference matches at this point is more than a little odd – thankfully, just one involves long travel, though, of course, that will entail a short week with a crucial home match against Houston and a daunting trip to New York following in quick procession after the long flight to Los Angeles.
Normally one can view games against the opposite conference as a bonus, great to win, but not all that much of a bother to lose – that is most definitely not the case, as Toronto will need all the points they can muster if they are to avoid yet another soul-crushing collapse; another embarrassment – perhaps the worst yet – for a club all too familiar with failure.
The only other team in the league sparing Toronto the undisputed ownership of MLS’ most-dysfunctional team honours is their opponent this weekend, Chivas USA.
The gallows humour that abounds in each fan base, each pointing to the other, snickering, and saying, ‘at least we’re not them’, will be put to the test on Sunday when Chivas makes their way to BMO Field for the only meeting of the season.
Much more than pride is on the line.
A closer look at this week’s enemy, Chivas USA, is in order…
Los Ameri-Goats, as at least one person affectionately knows them, have had a turbulent season – the latest in a series of them.
The churn began a few weeks before an official ball was kicked when MLS assumed operation of the club from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes on February 20th. Wilmer Cabrera, a steady hand, had been appointed manager earlier in the New Year - after a 2013 season split between El Chelis and Jose Luis Real - where he would remain.
Rumours have swirled around the club all season – would the league seek to rebrand having severed the ties with Guadalajara before selling it on? Will they stay in LA, or is a move in their future? – the most recent of which has indicated that a hiatus, of a season or maybe more, could be in the cards. Regardless of how sad the tale has been, no fan deserves to see their club folded, temporarily or worse.
With so many questions circling, Chivas underwent some extensive roster turnover. The Guadalajara loans were ended, mostly, while a handful of squad players, few of whom require a mention, had their options declined – apologies to Steve Purdy, Patrick McLain, and Josue Soto. Gabe Farfan was loaned out to Mexican side Chiapas, a move that later became permanent.
Their highest-profile acquisition in the off-season was Mauro Rosales, joining from Seattle, with the rights to Tristan Bowen and an allocation-spot swap sealing the deal. Eric Zavaleta would join Rosales in moving South from the Sounders – though on loan – and Rosales would eventually be traded on to Vancouver, with Nigel Reo-Coker headed to LA. Another trade saw Andrew Jean-Baptiste travel down from Portland, with Jorge Villafana bound for the other direction.
Argentine wide midfielder Leandro Barrera was acquired on loan from Argentinos Juniors, while countryman Agustin Pelletieri was brought in to shore up the middle of the pitch. Draft pick Thomas McNamara looked an exciting prospect, only to injure his knee a few matches in, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.
Chivas brought in some additional experience, adding New Zealand defender Tony Lochhead to the back-line, while veteran strikers Adolfo Bautista and Luke Moore, it was hoped, would provide some secondary scoring alongside Cubo Torres – they have both since moved on, Moore becoming familiar to Toronto fans, arriving in a three-way trade that saw Marvin Chavez in Chivas and Gale Agbossounmonde in Colorado.
In fact, the entire season has been a bit of a revolving door – and Colorado a regular trading partner – with Martin Rivero and Nathan Sturgis, another former Red, joining from the Rapids with a draft pick and Carlos Alvarez headed in the other direction in separate deals.
Ryan Finlay joined from Columbus, with yet another draft pick headed out the door; centre-back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was recruited from Chicago in exchange for allocation money, while a pair of forwards, Luis Bolanos and Felix Borja, were acquired on loan from LDU Quito in Ecuador. Japanese defender Akira Kaji was signed as well.
The major news item for Sunday’s lineup is that Cubo Torres will not be available, having seen an additional game added to his red suspension by the Disciplinary Committee, after being sent off for a unwise challenge on Baggio Husidic at the end of a 3-0 loss to LA in a recent SuperClasico.
Added to that loss is the longer-term absence of Carlos Bocanegra, still dealing with a concussion and subsequent symptoms that has seen him miss their last nine matches.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Dan Kennedy in goal; from right to left – Akira Kaji, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Bobby Burling, and Tony Lochhead across the back; Eric Avila, Nigel Reo-Coker, Nathan Sturgis, and Leandro Barrera through the midfield, with Marvin Chavez and Felix Borja paired in attack.
Young defenders Jean-Baptiste and Zavaleta have seen spot duty on the back-line and given the poor showing from the veterans against Kansas City, Cabrera could be looking to shake up the defense. Donny Toia is a candidate for that right-back slot, but Lochhead has been largely preferred.
In midfield, Osvaldo Minda, the walking yellow card, could take up the central spot beside Reo-Coker; so too could Pelletieri – Rivero has not been seen in some time. In the wide positions, Marky Delgado, Finley, and even Chavez, should he not be fielded up top, are candidates for the start.
Bolanos has seen very few minutes, making two substitute appearances since joining the club; like Chavez, Finley, nominally a wide attacker, has seen some time in the striker position with Torres either away with the Mexican National Team or suspended of late.
Chivas enter the match in poor spirits, having lost their last five matches, riding a 2014-league-worst ten-match winless skid. How poor have things been? They have conceded 24 goals in those ten games, scoring just three.
And it all began rather brightly, taking points from four of their first six games, winning on opening day over Chicago before drawing against Vancouver then away to New York and Portland.
Then cometh the fall, with an eight-match winless run that began with four-straight defeats, then two more, sandwiched between draws away to Dallas and LA.
The World Cup break came at a good time for Chivas, who fell out of the US Open Cup at the first hurdle, losing away to Carolina on penalty kicks after drawing 1-1. They burst out of the gates upon the league’s resumption, stringing together a four-game winning streak that included 1-0 victories at home over Salt Lake and Montreal, a 0-1 win in San Jose and a 1-3 result in Vancouver.
A tough road swing would end that run and begin the current winless one – losing 3-1 away to DC and 3-0 in Colorado. A single goal against Dallas would stretch that misery and end a modest home winning-streak at two games, while losses away to Portland (2-0) and New England (1-0), would come either side of a scoreless draw against Vancouver in California, closing out a woeful August that saw them not score a single goal.
The goal-less streak would continue in the final SuperClasico, taking the pitch as the away side, losing out 3-0 to a rampant Galaxy; two goals courtesy of Gyasi Zardes with Robbie Keane scoring the second in between. A second half surge against Seattle would finally see them score through Delgado and Finley – ending the dry spell at 597 minutes – but not until after a dire first half had granted the Sounders a four-goal head-start on braces from Obafemi Martins and Andy Rose.
Chivas would lose again four days later, falling 3-0 in Columbus – Justin Meram providing the first two at the start of the second half and Bernardo Anor closing out the match with one in the 80th minute; a week later, it was Kansas City who laid down the beating, strolling to a 0-4 victory on Chivas’ home turf, with Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, and Claudio Bieler putting their names on the score-sheet – the first two came in a seven-minute spell at the end of the half; the third added seven-minutes after the restart (horrible times to concede) and the capper in the 87th minute.
This looks and is very much a winnable match, but it will not be handed to Toronto; Chivas are a better team on their travels, having collected two more points, scored three additional goals, and conceded seven fewer than they have at home (having played an equal number of games – fourteen – each way).
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, as well as pointing out some interesting facts will be posted tomorrow morning.