With Toronto FC’s 2017 home opener now just around the corner, it is fitting that the bulk of coverage surrounding the team looks inward. Ahead of Friday’s game, most ink and airtime has been devoted to looking at the 2016 MLS Cup finalists, and what this season will bring.
Conversely, little attention has been paid to their opponents for the first home date of 2017: Sporting Kansas City. The Western Conference club have the exact same one-win-and-two-draws record through the first three games as Toronto, and there’s a chance one of these clubs’ unbeaten streaks comes to an end this weekend.
To get more information on the side visiting BMO Field on Friday, Waking the Red caught up with The Blue Testament, SB Nation’s Sporting KC blog. Here is what we discussed:
1. Who are the new faces on the Sporting Kansas City roster that Toronto FC fans should be aware of?
This offseason saw more changes than we have become used to as SKC fans. After three straight years of early crashes out of the playoffs, Peter Vermes switched up about a third of the roster.
The big one to keep an eye on is Gerso on the wing. He was brought in a designated player and he's shown a lot of speed and creativity thus far. Illie Sanchez is another new face who is a driving force in this squad. He is a former Barcelona B man, something Vermes has become quite fond of, and immediately earned the starting job in the all important holding midfield role.
Moreover, a new right-back was brought in by the name of Graham Zusi - not sure if you know him. But seriously, the position change opened up a lot for this team and he has actually been fitting in very nicely to that back line.
Another newbie you might get to see is Latif Blessing. He led the Ghanaian Premier League with goals as a teenager last year, is really tiny and stupid fast. That is the only way I can describe it: stupid. If he gets on the field he will be opposite the also speedy Gerso on the wing and they can create all sorts of problems.
2. Two clean sheets and only one goal allowed so far - what's been the key to your defensive success early this season?
It has to be the familiarity on the back line. These four guys have played together for years now. Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic are together on the left and they have been playing together for basically their whole lives as KC natives. Ike Opara has been here for four years and Graham Zusi has been here for eight years. These guys know exactly how to play off each other. The amount of unspoken communication that must go on between them is staggering.
Obviously you need some luck on your side as well. Other teams have missed open chances, Tim Melia stopped a penalty and has saved points multiple times this year and you have to think Zusi will be a liability in one-on-one situations. But they have been grinding out results and bailing out the offence, which hasn't quite found its footing yet.
3. Sporting KC only picked up 14 road points last season. What went wrong away that they can turn around this year?
Last year was a very frustrating year for SKC Nation. They were rarely getting blown out - it’s not as if they weren't showing up to play on the road. Teams started to figure out that you could give SKC the lion's share of possession, but they couldn't score. Often it felt like KC was dominating those matches and moving the ball around but missing chance after chance.
Sporting gave themselves a chance in just about every single one of those away matches, but for some reason could not find the last bit of magic. If they were in a position to win it for most of the game, they'd fail to extend the lead and the opponent would steal points at the death. Or they would fight hard for a draw, unable to find an end product, and then concede a winner at the death. The margins were so thin, it was unbelievable.
But that is part of the reason there was more of an overhaul than normal. Vermes is in a much better position with his attacking options than last year. No more hoping for a miracle from an out-of-form Brad Davis, and no more underachieving Zusi on the wing. Now there is pace, creativity and - more importantly - options. Also, Sanchez locking down the holding midfield role has allowed Benny Feilhaber to stay further up the pitch and get more involved in the attack.
While the goal totals would indicate that finishing issue from last year hasn't quite been resolved, there have been enough encouraging signs and results that fans aren't worrying too much yet.