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Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC: What to watch for

This should be a fun one - for a neutral, at least...

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes around MLS will be turned to Chicago this weekend when Toronto FC march into Toyota Park. The Reds, with a six-point advantage over the Fire in the standings, would love to make a statement by winning in the stadium of a fellow Supporters’ Shield contender.

The Fire were abysmal last season, finishing dead last in MLS. As such, TFC beat them three times, twice at BMO Field. Making a rapid turnaround this year, they’re now consistently hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference. They have struggled of late though, with just one win and four losses since the Gold Cup break. As a result, they’ve slipped behind New York City FC in the standings.

TFC had little trouble with Chicago earlier this season, riding a Sebastian Giovinco brace to a 3-1 home win. That said, this is sure to be an excellent match between two heavyweights in the Shield battle. Here are three things for TFC to think about this weekend.

1. Expose them

Chicago has a lot of (ahem) firepower up front. Nemanja Nikolic has 16 goals and David Accam has 12. Those are both more than either Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore. Up the middle they’re strong too, with stalwarts like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty dictating the tempo.

The back is where things get a little hairy for the Fire. Their normal back line of Matt Polster, Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent is spotty at best, and would probably have holes for Victor Vazquez to find. This weekend, though, the only one likely to feature is Kappelhof, with the other three all out injured. First-choice keeper Jorge Bava is also sidelined long term, so backup Matt Lampson will get the gloves on Saturday.

This is a major weakness for Chicago, and since they’re playing at home, it’s unlikely they’ll sit back like some teams that come to BMO Field. They’ll be going for the jugular just as much as TFC will, which could definitely leave them liable to be exposed at the back. The Reds could highlight the difference between the two sides by finding those holes.

2. Tarnish the record

The problem with all of that is Chicago’s home record. They’re almost perfect in Bridgeview, the only blemish being a 2-2 draw with Montreal back in April. In fact, all but two of their 10 home victories have been by two goals or more. For that reason, this is a tall order for Toronto FC.

If (when?) these two clubs meet in the playoffs, it’ll be home-and-home, so TFC should be able to handle them at BMO. The Fire are a different beast at Toyota Park, though, and a formidable one.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The way TFC approach this game will say a lot about their confidence. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not they’re fazed by the task ahead of them. The Reds didn’t do so well when they visited FC Dallas earlier this summer, and they would definitely like to avoid a repeat of that.

Toronto would like nothing more than to be the first team to beat Chicago at home. If they do, it will set them up (if they weren’t already) as the clear favourites for the Supporters’ Shield having beaten both their main challengers over the past few weeks.

3. Strike on the counter

For the first time in a while, Toronto might be the ones playing more defensively to begin the game. Chicago will probably come at them fast with all their attacking weapons, so the back three and Michael Bradley need to stay organized. The Fire’s defence probably won’t be, which makes them prime targets for a counter-attack.

Justin Morrow and Nicolas Hasler both have the pace and long-ball ability to engineer a strong counter. When TFC move forward with speed, it’ll probably be one of those two in tandem with Victor Vazquez working to find Giovinco or Altidore.

The counter is the bread and butter of MLS road teams. This will be an interesting opportunity to see how well TFC can execute against a very top-heavy opponent.