After an incredible peak, the spirits of Toronto FC fans are trending once more toward a valley. After a home loss to bitter rival Montreal Impact, coupled with an injury to All-Star Sebastian Giovinco, the euphoric feeling that comes with a seven-game unbeaten streak has all but disappeared for the Reds.
Toronto FC could right the ship fairly quickly on Saturday, when they pay a visit to the Chicago Fire. Due to a bye in week 26, TFC hasn't yet had a chance to get back in the win column since the defeat on August 27.
Toyota Park has not been a welcoming venue for them over the years. The Reds are 0-5-5 all-time in Chicago, having never managed to pull out an away victory against the Fire.
Chicago sits ninth in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind Orlando for the final playoff spot. Still in contention, they'll be counting their blessings for getting to be the team that plays a Giovinco-less Toronto FC at home. The Fire are a squad that can take an early lead and bunker down - a strategy that has repeatedly baffled TFC's attack this season.
The Chicago Fire also don't look like the worst team in MLS anymore. Designated Player David Accam, who will return to the squad this weekend from international duty with Ghana, has scored in his previous two starts and can be very dangerous out wide. The Fire won convincingly last Saturday without him, taking down the Philadelphia Union 3-0 and extending their home unbeaten streak to 12 matches.
TFC have their work cut out for them if they want to take three points home from the Windy City. Montreal's 4-1 loss to Orlando on Wednesday helped them out in the standings, giving the Reds a six-point cushion in the race for securing a home playoff game. However, coach Greg Vanney has insisted that his team must control their own destiny.
Although they fell out of first place in the Eastern Conference during it, the two-week break was a boon for Toronto FC. They had time to reflect on their loss, and try to kick the bad habits that came out of it. Four key players - Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tosaint Ricketts, and Armando Cooper - didn't have to miss time while away with their national teams.
The time off also allowed some battered players to heal up. Midfielder Benoit Cheyrou may soon be ready to start again, keeper Clint Irwin has finally returned to full training, and it looks like the Reds may only be without their star Italian striker for one game:
Giovinco could be ready by next weekend, Vanney says.— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) September 7, 2016
This will be Toronto FC's second-last away game of the season, with seven total matches left on the schedule. This is the part of the season where fans will be glad for the extended road stretch at the start of the year, with the team chasing their first-ever home playoff date and, potentially, the Supporters' Shield. TFC are now eight points back of FC Dallas in the overall MLS standings, but they have a game in hand on every team in front of them.
Vanney will have some tough decisions to make before Saturday's match, but he's expected to stick with his two-striker formation and midfield diamond. Jozy Altidore could be joined up top by either Tosaint Ricketts or Jordan Hamilton, with Ricketts seeming the more likely candidate given his recent run of strong performances for the Reds.
Newly-signed Panamanian international Armando Cooper is likely to feature in the squad for the first time after being acquired on loan from C.D. Arabe Unido. His versatility as both a midfielder and defender will come in handy for TFC. However, he's unlikely to start according to several reports.
Cooper was primarily targeted to come in and play at the attacking point of the diamond, but he also has experience at right back. It may not be terribly likely, but it would be interesting to see Vanney use this as an opportunity to give Steven Beitashour a bit of a break later in the game, especially if TFC is in need of an extra attacking option. If so, Cooper could play almost as a wingback, which allows him to better use his arsenal of talents higher up the field.
Expect Cooper to see some action on Saturday. Also get the feeling that Bono will start in net. #TFC— John Molinaro (@JohnMolinaro) September 8, 2016
Although Clint Irwin is ready to return, rookie keeper Alex Bono has made a name for himself by being rock-solid while filling in. When he first announced that Irwin's injury had healed, Vanney made no promises that he would be the assumed starter this weekend. Now, things seem to be pointing towards Bono being given the nod, at least once more.
The Reds will be hard-pressed to win this game, with so many factors working against them. Nonetheless, they remain a top team in MLS and would silence a lot of critics by winning for the first time ever at Toyota Park.