Toronto FC calmed some of the fears surrounding their current form with a relatively simple win over Colorado last weekend, re-establishing themselves on more solid footing in this year's playoff race.
That is good.
But, to be honest, the non-belief that revolves around the club requires a lot more than a win over the lowly Rapids to dispel the ghosts of seasons past.
How success should be measured is a difficult subject. Are the playoffs enough? A home playoff match? Or winning the whole darn thing?
There is no doubt that Toronto is one of the biggest spenders in the league, but expenditure is not a pure measure of success. It is a tool, but hardly the determinative factor, especially in a league like MLS where there are so many factors to be considered.
Patience in a virtue, and the fans have been patient; of that there is no doubt. TFC may not like the criticism, some of which is unwarranted, but it falls to them to disprove the impressions that time has left.
The first step is the next one, and after that, the one that follows, and so on. One foot in front of the other.
A single match remains in September, before the final run of four in October, that will determine the progress that has been made under the current management.
They have done a lot, but satisfaction lies beyond.
Saturday's opponent may be down in the dumps, languishing at the base of the table and having recently shuffled their management, but still they are a dangerous one. On any day in MLS, unexpected road blocks can emerge. Dispatching those challenges is what good teams need to do.
Though much of what was written prior to the first meeting holds – Parts One and Two, a closer look at the Chicago Fire, this weekend's foe, is in order.
Chicago enters the match in poor form, having shut down a few key players, and with interim manager Brian Bliss, the club's technical director, at the helm having taken over from Frank Yallop shortly after a home loss to Orlando City on September 19.
Despite the coaching change, Chicago were unable to arrest a losing streak that has now stretched to four matches. Add in a draw away to Orlando at the end of August and the Fire are winless in five with a single, lonely victory in their last nine matches.
Though they are not yet mathematically eliminated – sitting on 27 points from 30 matches at the base of the Eastern Conference – their season is all but over, a full twelve points off the final playoff place. Any result but a win on Saturday, and friendly scores elsewhere, will officially end their year.
There was, however, a time when the season looked to hold some promise.
When the clubs first met, at the beginning of April, a Chicago victory put them in the midst of a run of three-straight wins, their longest such run this season, having beaten Philadelphia before and emerging victorious against New York City FC the following match – all three results came at home.
But doom followed close behind, as a run of four winless ensued, losing in Kansas City and at home to Salt Lake, before picking up a series of 2-2 draws away to NYC FC and Columbus in order.
They would close May with a big 3-0 win over Montreal, but a winless June would follow, losing in DC, home to Orlando, away to New England, and home to DC in order. The Fire would advance in the US Open Cup with wins over lower league opposition and July looked to hold promise.
Chicago opened the month with a pair of results – drawing away to Houston and then winning at home against Seattle – but two losses to Columbus, home and away, stalled that progress. Results at the end of the month, drawing against New England and winning against Dallas to start August, breathed fresh vigour into the side, who also advanced to the Open Cup semifinals, setting a date in Philadelphia.
A 1-0 loss to Portland came on short rest – Fanendo Adi scoring the only goal – and five days later they were out of the cup, having fallen by a single goal to the Union.
The two would meet for a second time in four days, playing out a riotous 3-3 draw – Kennedy Igboananike opened and closed the scoring, but goals from Fernando Aristeguieta and Fabinho put Philly ahead; Patrick Nyako levelled, only for Sebastian Le Toux to reinstate the lead, before Igboananike's 92nd minute equalizer.
Losing 0-1 to Colorado at home – Dillon Serna scoring inside the opening minute – signalled doom, while a 3-2 win over the high-flying New York Red Bulls offered some hope – Sacha Kljestan scored from the spot, but Igboananike and Nyarko gave the Fire a half-time lead; Ronald Zubar pulled Red Bull back in after the restart, but Igboananike found the winner in the 73rd minute, before the 1-1 draw against Orlando – David Accam scoring in the 30th minute, only for an Eric Gehrig own-goal to ruin the result – kicked off the current downward spiral.
September, thus far, has been a losing month: the Fire fell 4-3 in Montreal – a Didier Drogba hat-trick and a Wandrille Lefevre header overpowering strikes from Jeff Larentowicz, Gilberto, and Igboananike; 3-2 at the Red Bulls – goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, and Kljestan again overturning a promising start that saw Larentowicz and Accam put Chicago ahead; 0-1 against Orlando – an 86th minute Bryan Rochez winner the decider, and 2-1 in Montreal – Drogba again and Andres Romero scoring either side of an Accam strike.
No doubt they will be desperate to keep faint hopes alive and avoid a losing-sweep come Saturday.
April 4 Chicago Fire 3: Toronto FC 2
Chicago took the lead in the 14th minute when Joevin Jones got on the end of a Shaun Maloney pass, driving a left-footer into the Toronto goal. TFC would respond six minutes later following a lengthy midfield build up that saw Benoit Cheyrou find Ashtone Morgan on the left, who then pulled back to Sebastian Giovinco for a deflected shot that bobbled past Jon Busch.
Toronto took the lead at the start of the second half through Cheyrou, arriving at the top of the box to place a Giovinco pass into the Chicago goal, but a pair of Chicago goals twelve minutes apart over turned the result.
Maloney nabbed the first, working in to place a low shot past an unsighted Joe Bendik, and Larentowicz got the second when his low free-kick got past a poorly-placed wall and beat the Toronto keeper. A red card in between, to Warren Creavalle, who was booked twice, did little to aid the visitors' hopes of a result.
With the match coming so quickly on the heels of Wednesday night's loss in Montreal and the change in the managerial seat, it is a little difficult to be overly certain about what eleven will take the pitch on Saturday. But there were a few hints contained in the lineup that faced Montreal.
The announcement that both keeper Sean Johnson and defender Gehrig were to be shut down for the remainder of the season, as well as a long-term injury to Brazilian centre-back Adailton, leaves Chicago a little under-staffed.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Jon Busch in goal; from right to left – Daniel Cyrus, Ty Harden, Jeff Larentowicz, and Joevin Jones across the back; Patrick Nyarko, Michael Stephens, Harrison Shipp, and David Accam through the midfield; Kennedy Igboananike and Gilberto paired in attack.
There are several possible changes.
Lovel Palmer and Patrick Doody saw time at full-back in Montreal – right and left, respectively – and they could maintain their positions.
In midfield, Shipp came on in the final minutes on Wednesday, while Stephens was rested entirely, they, therefore, are fresh for Saturday, but not fielding either Matt Polster or Razcan Cocis, does leave them a little less defensively sound in the middle. Accam has locked down that attacking left side recently, but could be moved up front, through that would disrupt the building partnership between Igboananike and Gilberto.
Matt Watson too is an option in the centre, especially if Shipp moves to the left and Accam up top. Second year player Chris Ritter has found playing time rare, but with their season all but officially over, now may be the time to give such squad players time in preparation for the off-season roster cull.
Then there is Mike Magee, who has battled injury all season has largely been a substitute, but is an option for Bliss. Jason Johnson, a speedy attacker who was acquired from Houston in a trade for Alex, is an option up top or out wide.
Chicago has plenty of talent, especially going forward, but it has not clicked this season.
A primary concern for Toronto heading into the match will be limiting Chicago's ability to utilize their speed via quick transitions.
Transition is the hot-topic these days in tactical talk, has been for a few years.
And Chicago is as dangerous as any team when allowed to move forward against a defense that is off-balance or out of position due to a poor turnover.
A goal from their win over the Red Bulls proves instructional in this case. Polster forces a turnover in midfield that catches New York at a disadvantage. The ball falls to Gilberto, who rolls a pass up the middle for Igboananike, making an in-field run from the left to break away from defender Matt Miazga, beating Luis Robles with a low right-footer:
Toronto needs to limit the chances they concede by being precious in possession and measured in their passing; move the ball quickly, but not recklessly.
Accam may be the fastest player in the league – here he manhandled Connor Lade to get on the end of a long clearance from Stephens (from his own-goal line) to score another against the Red Bulls – but should he be over-concentrated upon, the others – Nyarko, Igboananike, etc. - can get into such positions, as Igboananike showed with the above goal.
The danger of their pace is obvious, but the play of Gilberto since joining the club has shown the variety of his game. He has shown himself to be a playmaker, as well as a striker – he has two assists to go with his one goal through six appearance.
Another goal against New York shows his ability to drift or drop to find space, and that ability to set-up his teammates. Cocis lays a ball down the right for Gil, who gets on it near the corner flag. His pull-back/cross is met by the late-arriving Stephens, chested towards Nyarko, who is able to turn and hit a low shot across to the bottom-corner:
Gilberto will be eager to inflict some damage on the team that deemed him surplus to requirement, so he must be watched carefully. He will be fired up for this one. The potential for late arriving runners at the top of the box is something that TFC must be aware of as well. With the speed out wide, Chicago will gain ground on the flanks; leaving the top of the box open makes for an obvious goal-scoring chance as the rest of the attack catches up with play.
Ol' Gil's goal came from just such a play, albeit a little deeper, against Montreal, Nyarko slipping a ball for Igboananike on the right, who beats Donny Toia to send a low ball to the edge of the six for Gilberto to pounce:
The full-backs will be busy, with Chicago's ability to fly up the outside channels a particular concern, but a lot of defensive responsibilities will fall on Toronto's wide midfielders to hustle back and provide cover – and even when the Fire appear isolated or out of ideas, they can still cause trouble. Accam's goal against Orlando came from such a dead-play, racing to keep a ball in touch and then surging past a series of defenders to beat Tally Hall:
Stay with plays, don't get caught giving up on something that looks hopeless. Chicago will punish such play.
One final note is the threat Chicago can pose on set-pieces. Shipp delivers excellent service and even without Adailton and Gehrig, the Fire have plenty of targets in Larentowicz, Cocis, Gilberto, and Igboananike, who rose up well to get on the end of a such a corner kick against Montreal. They are particularly fond of the near-post run for flicked header, either on goal or directed into the middle.
Like all sides, Chicago, when caught in possession or pushed up the pitch, are vulnerable to a devastating break. Colorado needed mere seconds to get on the board when a midfield turnover allowed Kevin Doyle to spring Gabriel Torres down the right, who in turn picked out Serna for the early game-winner:
Toronto has the ability to make such decisive moves, with Giovinco the obvious target to burst behind the back-line, but quick-minded play and communication will be the key.
The back-line has been a frailty all season, in part due to the constant shuffling that has occured in those positions. Injuries have made it difficult to field a true partnership, pairing Larentowicz with either Adailton or Gehrig for much of the season. The recent arrival of Harden has added another partnership option, but new relationships take time to coalesce, leading to some dire miscommunication.
Consider this goal from the Red Bulls:
Both centre-backs step up, leaving Wright-Phillips completely alone, which is a bad plan. That threat forces Cyrus to abandon marking Grella arriving at the back-side, as he drifts off in attempt to cover both. A low ball in from Lloyd Sam falls to Grella, who find the back of the net.
A similar miscommunication occurred in another Red Bull goal, this time up the middle, as Felipe threaded a ball to Kljestan, who touched in Wright-Phillips down the left-channel. Harden stepped up to confront Kljestan, opening up the lane for Wright-Phillips:
Toronto has plenty of attacking talent, to either pick those passes or finish such chances, but they too often fail to commit the numbers forward to make the most of those chances. Grella's goal was in part because of the sheer variety of options forced Chicago to make decisions; Wright-Phillips' came from the midfield inserting themselves into the attacking build, again forcing defenders to choose. Therein lie mistakes.
Damien Perquis' towering header against Colorado was the first directly from a corner kick that Toronto have scored this season – Eriq Zavaleta's in Seattle was off a short corner, though very similar. In MLS, set-pieces play a massive part in breaking open close matches and should the club hope to contend, they need to add this tool to their arsenal.
Chicago has shown some weakness – in part due to communication and part due to revolving lineups – in their defensive capabilities on set-plays. Wandrille Lefevre was twice able to get open, sending his first header wide before scoring on the second when his back-side run allowed him to break clear of his marker, Palmer:
In many ways, set-pieces are a matter of communication and practice, while having a variety of options makes the success of any one means more likely. Whether a near-post move, drifting off the back side, or simply beating the opponent to a ball, all rely on a quality and reliability of service that has often been lacking from TFC.
Chicago has also shown a propensity to be troubled by the combined use of width and runners into the centre. The first goal of Drogba's hat-trick came when Justin Mapp slipped a ball down the right for Nigel Reo-Coker, who picked out the big man with a cross – Chicago needed to either cut out the ball or get between it and Drogba.
While against Orlando it was the space left at the top of the area that did the damage when Brek Shea's ball in fell to Rochez (no video available) – that the forward was not picked up, or that there were not enough defensive bodies to match the threat, was the issue.
In Justin Morrow, Toronto has one of the premier full-backs in the league, but his offensive talents have not always been utilized, while the wide midfield – Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, etc – is capable of bursting into those spaces and putting in service. Again the issue of getting runners forward comes to light – it is well and good to gain the territory, but to finish, targets are required.
One final note on Chicago: they can be undone by a bit of quick trickery. They were caught napping on New York's short corner trick, when Sam touched the ball, allowing Kljestan to saunter towards goal, Zubar turning it in – the goal should not have stood, due to Sam's multiple touches, but the point stands, Chicago were slow to react.
Similarly, against Montreal it was a quick restart from Ignacio Piatti that allowed him to put in Drogba for his second:
Toronto needs to look to exploit those situations
The two teams have met twenty times in MLS play, with Chicago winning nine, Toronto three, and eight ending in draws.
Ten of those matches have been played in Toronto, where all three TFC wins have come; the Fire have won four and three have ended square.
Chicago are unbeaten in the last twelve encounters, dating back to a 4-1 TFC win in 2010 where Nick LaBrocca, O'Brien White, and a Chad Barrett brace overpowered Logan Pause's single tally.
That runs encompasses five matches in Toronto, where Chicago have won twice; the last two have been draws.