With a strong midweek home win over Orlando City in their back-pocket, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on short rest for another weekend match at BMO Field on Saturday.
The quick turnaround can be difficult, made more so by the fact TFC will be forced into a change at the back as Damien Perquis picked up his fifth yellow card and will be suspended. But fortune has smiled upon them as Sporting KC, this weekend's visitors, will be without two influential players of their own, with suspension and injury combining to deny.
Thirteen matches remain in the 2015 regular season. Toronto sits well-placed in a three-way tied for third in the Eastern Conference with games in hand on both Columbus and New England – with whom they are level on points – and just two points behind second-placed New York (Red Bulls), setting up an intriguing clash in New York next weekend.
But now is not the time to be looking forward.
Should the club hope to carry themselves on to the next stage, Toronto must focus on collecting points at home, asserting their dominance; that nine of their stretch-run matches will be hosted in Toronto is a blessing, but one that must be capitalized upon.
Unbeaten in their last four, having won three of those matches, home form bodes well for a TFC side that has struggled away from the partisan crowds.
The win over Orlando was an excellent start, but with the weekend comes a new challenge, the first and only meeting of the season with an ever-dangerous opponent.
A closer look at this weekend's foe, Sporting KC, is in order.
Having finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, Peter Vermes' side were unable to defend their 2013 MLS Cup, falling at the first hurdle with a 2-1 loss in New York against the Red Bulls in the Knockout Round.
Vermes, having established a solid core, used the off-season to tinker around the edges of his squad.
There were a few big names that departed. Aurelien Collin was traded to expansion Orlando City – Jalil Anibaba heading in the other direction – while both starting keepers, Andy Gruenebaum and Eric Kronberg, left, selected in the Re-Entry Draft.
Sal Zizzo was taken by New York City in the Expansion Draft and a variety of players saw their options declined, contracts run out or terminated, loans expire, or were waived, including former designated player Claudio Bieler and the likes of Antonio Dovale, Soony Saad, and Lawrence Olum.
CJ Sapong, deemed surplus to requirement with the play of Dom Dwyer, was traded to Philadelphia.
Vermes would add a few pieces. Acquiring Bernardo Anor in a trade with Columbus, signing forward Krisztian Nemeth, midfielder Soni Mustivar, keeper Luis Marin, and defender Marcel de Jong on free transfers, and most importantly, welcoming back Roger Espinoza from his English adventure.
The SuperDraft saw a trio of fresh blood work into the side in Connor Hallisey, Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Amadou Dia, while Tim Melia, a former Chivas USA-turned-pool-keeper, was picked up off waivers – he would earn the starting position when Marin's contract was terminated by mutual consent.
Servando Carrasco was acquired in another trade, with Houston, but was recently moved on to Orlando City with Amobi Okugo heading in the other direction.
Vermes added another piece in the summer transfer window, signing former Barcelona product Jordi Quintilla from French club, AC Ajaccio. He likes to have plenty of options and has a raft of players that can feature at numerous positions.
The club did suffer a major injury blow in April when centre-back Ike Opara, who was dominant in the early season, suffered another devastating injury, rupturing his Achilles tendon, sidelining him for four-to-six months.
Two further players are listed on the most recent report: Anibaba is out with thigh strain, while Seth Sinovic is questionable with a concussion.
Added to those is a pair of suspensions. Dom Dwyer picked up his fifth yellow card of the season, earning an accumulation ban, while Espinoza was sanctioned by the Disciplinary Committee for his lunging, high-boot on Tyler Deric last weekend.
Espinoza was the victim of a tackle from Nathan Sturgis later that match, leading a bone fracture in his foot that will see the Honduran midfield engine miss ten weeks – Sturgis was red-carded for the challenge; it seemed harsh at the time, but now less so.
Those two absences make projecting a starting lineup ever-more difficult. Vermes can be tricky to pin-down at the best of times and shorn of two starters, in the midst of a busy schedule, he can throw a curve-ball or two.
With that in mind, their projected eleven for Saturday is as follows: Tim Melia in goal; from right to left – Chance Myers, Kevin Ellis, Matt Besler, and Amadou Dia across the back; Soni Mustivar sitting deep, with Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura further ahead in midfield; Graham Zui, Krisztian Nemeth, and Marcel de Jong in attack.
There are plenty of options available at many of those positions.
At the back, Abdul-Salaam has featured at right-back in recent weeks, but the return to fitness of Myers should see him resume the starting role, while Erik Palmer-Brown is an option at centre-back, but is unlikely given the threat posed by Sebastian Giovinco – why risk exposing the kid to that.
Left-back has seen a revolving door of players. Dia has featured of late, while Sinovic, if fit, owed the position over recent years. The Canadian de Jong has seen some time there, but is a bit of a defensive liability, while Bernardo Anor played a bit there for Columbus.
Replacing Espinoza is difficult, but Nagamura locked down that position last year, while Okugo could be in line to see some minutes, working his way into the side following his trade.
Peterson, a former Red, is a workhorse and a candidate to start, so too is Hallisey, who has looked lively in his outings. Zusi plays on either flank, so could move around, or even drop alongside Feilhaber, and Jimmy Medranda is an option as well. It is a bit of a stab in the dark to project de Jong, but given he will be playing in a familiar ground and near his hometown – he is from Newmarket, Ontario – he may well get the nod.
Sporting were faced with the unenviable task of moving over to the Western Conference in the rebalance, joining foes Houston in swapping conferences due to a pair of expansion sides entering the East.
They struggled early with the adjustment, but have come into form of late, rising up to fourth place in the West, sitting on 34 points from twenty matches – a mark that would be good enough for second in the East.
The meeting comes at a good time for Toronto. Two weeks ago, Kansas City were the form team in the league, with just one loss in eleven matches and two in sixteen. But a loss and a draw see them enter winless through two for just the third time this season.
2015 did not begin so well, drawing two of their first three matches and losing away to Dallas in between. They would close March with their first win, in New York against expansion City, following that up with another over Philadelphia and a draw against Salt Lake, rounding out a four-game unbeaten run.
A loss in LA would snap that streak and was followed by a crazy eight-goal draw in Houston to close March.
That match sparked a seven-game unbeaten run that saw wins against Chicago, New England, Dallas, and Seattle (all at home) as well as draws away to DC and Seattle.
A win over St Louis in the Open Cup would be followed five days later by a loss in Salt Lake, falling 2-1.
Sporting would put that set-back behind them, embarking on a three-game winning streak in the league: beating Colorado 2-0 – Nemeth and a Sam Cronin own-goal providing the scoring; winning in Vancouver 0-1 – an Ellis header the difference; and handing Montreal a 2-1 defeat at Sporting Park – Feilhaber and Dwyer scoring in the first half, with Ignacio Piatti responding in the second.
At the same time they advanced to the semifinals of the US Open Cup with wins over Dallas (6-2) and Houston (3-1).
Short rest again would prove their downfall, losing 2-1 to Salt Lake three days after knocking old enemies Houston out of the cup. Javier Morales stole through the KC defenses to open the scoring in the 34th minute. Feilhaber responded with a crack from distance in the 50th, but a Joao Plata penalty in the 73rd minute after Melia upended Olmes Garcia on a threatening run proved the winner.
This past weekend Houston would take a modicum of revenge, extending Sporting's troubles with a hard-fought 1-1 draw. Dwyer gave the hosts the lead in the 6th minute, rising up to get on the end of a Feilhaber free kick, but Houston responded in a similar manner in the 78th minute when Ricardo Clark got on the end of a Brad Davis delivery. Sturgis was red-carded in the 86th minute, leading to the Espinoza injury, but Vermes was left angered by a 94th minute handball by Luis Garrido that went unpunished.
Though Toronto will be playing on short rest, Kansas City is set to embark on a gruelling run of five matches in two weeks. They meet Salt Lake once more in the semifinals of the Cup next Wednesday at home before hosting Vancouver on the weekend and San Jose the following midweek, ending the stretch with a trip to Columbus the following Saturday.
Does that run affect Vermes' plans heading into this encounter? Will have to wait and see.
Part Two, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, will be posted later today