As the saying goes - Toronto FC are "due". If not for a win, Toronto are certainly "due" for a result, or at minimum a goal. At this point TFC are on pace to become the worst expansion team in the history of MLS. That said, I'm not suggesting Saturday is a must win, though fielding a competitive side for the full 90 minutes would be nice change. With DC United finally winning on the weekend, Toronto remains in a battle with Real Salt Lake, as the two teams left in MLS still chasing a win. unlike previous expansion teams, Toronto FC do not have a fellow expansion team to beat up on, and the next closest thing - Real Salt Lake, are not in the cards until a July fixture.
The time for excuses and finger pointing is wearing thin. While Toronto are certainly not a playoff caliber team at this point, it is critical for them to salvage some respectability for the sake of the fans (and potential fans), as well as the confidence of the players. That said, TFC showed much better against Kansas City two weekends ago. At a minimum, they proved they could compete.
The Chicago Fire are a top team in the Eastern Conference, a team with considerable depth and experience, so things won't get easier this week. Toronto is also facing the prospect of a very busy schedule over the next two weeks. Toronto FC host Chicago on Saturday, Houston on Wednesday, DC United next Saturday, Benfica of Portugal the following Wednesday and an away fixture with Columbus on May 26th. Though only a friendly, I would suggest the Benfica fixture will be the most important game from a credibility standpoint, as many of the non-converted (of all ethnicity's) in the GTA will gauge Toronto FC and MLS by this result - so it too is a game I suggest shouldn't be taken lightly from a marketing standpoint.
Perhaps in order to deflect some of the attention away from his team's poor start this week, Toronto Coach/GM Mo Johnston has been involved in a war of words with his Chicago Fire counterparts. The Fire have made comments about having to play on the artificial surface, with Mo defending the BMO surface. My take - with three teams in the Eastern Conference unfortunately having to play on the fake stuff, and with the warmer weather on its way, making the Field Turf even more uncomfortable to play on, Chicago might want to stop whining and start better preparing themselves for games on plastic.
Toronto may benefit from a roster that is finally starting to get healthy. The return of Ronnie O'Brien will be a huge addition for a Toronto side that has lacked quality in the midfield all season. Much of the focus of Toronto's dismal start has focused on the defenders and the forwards, yet the midfield has been almost non-existent. Carl Robinson has to step up his game and earn his salary (amongst the highest in the league). Andy Welsh is yet another one of the high priced, highly touted imports that have come in and honestly done very little. Many questions will remain until game time. Will Mo be more daring in his lineup? Will we see a different formation - 5-4-1? Will Chris Pozniak finally see action in the back? Will Marco Reda be given another chance and be re-inserted ? If so do we see Jim Brennan make a move to the midfield (probably not in the cards given Brennan has played at the back through training camp).
The Fire on the other hand have started well this season with a 3-1-1 record. The Fire's last match, a 3-1 loss away at New England, was not one of their better showings thus far. From what I've managed to watch of them this year, they are a quality side and should be contenders. High priced Mexican import Cutuamonc Blanco won't arrive until June. The Fire have produced many quality players over the years winning the MLS Cup in their expansion year in 1998. The Fire alumni include Jorge Campos, Hristo Stiotchkov, and Pole Piotr Nowak who was one of the greatest players to ever play in MLS. Premiership players Carlos Bocanegra who was transferred to Fulham, and Demarcus Beasley of Manchester City started their careers in Chicago, as did striker Josh Wolff currently with 1860 Munich in Germany. The Fire also happen to be the team Canadian International and Toronto keeper Greg Sutton started his professional career with.
With Toronto announcing friendlies with Benfica and Aston Villa this week, Chicago too announced last week a series of friendlies where they will play both MKS Cacovia Krakow of Poland, and Glasgow Celtic.
A LOOK AT CHICAGO
GOALKEEPER: Matt Pickens is the Chiacgo Fire number one. Pickens augmented his place as a starter last season after MLS veteran keeper Zach Thorton's play deteriorated. Jon Busch, who had a cup of coffee with Toronto FC during pre-season, after being claimed on waivers from the Columbus Crew serves as the Chicago backup.
DEFENDERS: The defence is led by veteran Jim Curtin. Curtain is a rock for Chicago and amongst the best in the league at his position. CJ Brown is a Chicago Fire original that is always consistent. Dasan Robinson is developing into a fine MLS defender, and Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares can be an offensive threat from the back (though it was him who I believe was skinned badly for one of the Revs goals last week in his own box). Young Trinidadian international Osei Telesford, who claimed Toronto FC were interested in drafting him this year (Toronto instead selected Daryl Roberts who never reported and signed instead with Sparta Rotterdam in Holland), has had limited minutes.
MIDFIELD: Chris Armas is the team leader and controls the midfield. A former US National team player, I've always admired Armas for his quality. Armas in his final MLS campaign, is a defensive midfielder that will really make his presence felt alll over the pitch during the course of a game. Armas has had a career slowed by injuries at the most unfortunate times (not that there is a good time to suffer an injury). Injuries that have kept him out of important international opportunities, including a possible starting role with the 2002 World Cup team. He will be remembered by fans of Canadian soccer as the object of an embarrassing protest by CSA chief Kevan Pipe after playing against Canada in a World Cup qualifier. The appeal was later dismissed by FIFA. Armas who represented Puerto Rico in a non-sanctioned FIFA tournament, was thought to be ineligible by Pipe. Honduran international Ivan Guerrero is another very experienced player that will look to exploit Toronto wide on the flank. Diego Guttirrez a Kansas City native, is another threat in the middle. Bob Gansler and Mo Johnston should be familiar with Guttirrez who has been around MLS since its inception, spent several years in KC, and his been a consistent presence. Justin Mapp a National Team midfielder is a very dangerous creator in the middle of the park when healthy. Mapp has been slowed by a nagging injury this year and may not see time on Saturday. If Mapp doesn't get selected, expect talented Brazilian Thiago to start. Frenchman Pascal Bedrossian should also be available.
FORWARDS: Chris Rolfe and Chad Barrett are a dangerous duo up top for the Fire. While they will not figure as prominently on an individual level perhaps when compared to Eddie Johnson from two weeks ago, collectively they will give Toronto's back line plenty to deal with. Calen Carr is an energetic option off the bench that will create problems for tired defenders if inserted late in the match.
KEYS FOR TORONTO: In my opinion this game will be won in the midfield (how about that for a piece of insight). If Toronto can somehow limit the effectiveness of the very talented Chicago midfield they may be able to hold on for a result. Of course this will be easier said then done. Toronto has to be more thorough overall in their distribution of the ball and work towards keeping meaningful possession in the final third. TFC have been very predictable when mounting any sort of attack (which has been rare), and turnover the ball way too often and easily in the middle of the park. It won't take long for MLS coaches to figure out how to limit the the long balls out of the back to Danny Dichio either (which seemed the preferred option by Wynne & Goldthwaite vs. KC), thus attacking from wide positions must improve. Toronto doesn't have many options off the bench, though a young unknown like Andrea Lombardo or Gabe Gala may cause Chicago some fits (not sure if Lombardo will be available given he will play on Friday for Canada at BMO against Argentina). Chicago failed to respond to tactical changes made by Steve Nicol in the second half last Sunday in New England, and paid for it.
PREDICTION: Toronto 0 - Chicago 0