Toronto FC

Reds ready to take on Kansas City at home despite roster shuffle


Six weeks into the 2024 MLS schedule, Toronto FC have been one of the surprises of the year.

To everybody but themselves at least.

“It's what we believed. We committed ourselves to this project, so no, no surprise,” replied Deandre Kerr after training on Friday. “This is what we expected to do.”

Through five matches TFC, with three wins and a draw, are keeping pace with the group at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The side will be looking to carry that momentum into Saturday’s match against Sporting KC at BMO Field knowing that a mere fraction into the season is no time to get complacent.

“We're very happy with how we started. It's something we put emphasis on, starting strong, but we're not comfortable at all with where we're at. We're working even harder,” doubled down Kerr. “We know what we want to achieve at the end of the season, so it's the same mindset as week one.”

Toronto received some bad news this week in the form of injury to Lorenzo Insigne. The Italian maestro exited last weekend’s match against Atlanta United early and will be sidelined for a spell. “We've had information from, and the MRIs have been studied by, people in Italy, England, and Canada, and unfortunately the hamstring is probably a six week process,”

forecast John Herdman. “We'll be doing everything we can to get him back as quickly as we can.”

In addition to the on-site staff, the club consulted with Insigne’s doctor in Italy and hamstring specialists in England before making the final determination.

Insigne has two game-winning goals already this season; Herdman called his upcoming absence a “huge blow.”

“Sometimes hamstrings can be two to four [weeks], but the location of [the injury] makes it really tricky,” he explained. “You have to be really careful with this one. That’s why we brought the additional expertise in, people that have worked on this type of injury. It [will be] a very careful return.”

There is no way to replace Insigne’s ability to make magic happen, but a little over a month into the season a certain attitude has begun to embed itself in the side.

“He's such an important guy for us, we’ll miss his quality,” lamented Kerr.

“But next guy up.”

Between injuries and international duty, nearly every week has already seen TFC missing key players.

Sean Johnson goes down; Luka Gavran steps in. Richie Laryea not available; one of Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Raoul Petretta, Tyrese Spicer or Nickseon Gomis fills his boots. Jonathan Osorio injured, Deybi Flores away; Matty Longstaff slots in, Alonso Coello adapts his game, Kosi Thompson rolls up his shorts. Bernardeschi pushed forward from that wing-back role; Kobe Franklin slots in. Kevin Long or Shane O’Neill not available; Sigurd Rosted and Aimé Mabika take on the mantle.

Every dark cloud.

“I always look at the silver linings,” laid out Herdman.

“There are guys that have been waiting for opportunity.”

“If it wasn't for the injuries, we wouldn't have seen Spicer, Jahkeele is starting to find a bit of a groove as well, and you'll see more opportunity now at the top of the box for people like Fede [Bernardeschi] to play closer to goal,” he detailed, adding Laryea’s absence to the figuring. “And then if they’re back in May, it’s like having two new signings at a good time, so I keep telling myself there's a glass half full here.”

Mid-May is when MLS transitions from the weekly gallop of early season to a full-fledged sprint towards the Leagues Cup pause. It never hurts to get squad players good reps before then.

And the idea of getting Bernardeschi closer to goal ought to frighten any opposition. His work-rate this season has been singular and he’s due to cash in on that sort of effort.

“Another level,” said Herdman of the Italian’s performances this season. “Taking on a genuine leadership responsibility in the team has helped elevate all elements of his performance.”

“I watch him around the dressing room, he's dealing with the day-to-day things that maybe he didn't deal with last year. In training, he sets the standard – every day he’s turning up and you can see he’s putting a shift – and just the other day I caught him, I took a little video, he's coaching Kobe on his crossing, he took him for 10 minutes at the end,” he continued. “He’s really invested, really dialed in on something bigger than himself, and it's manifesting in his performances.”

Flores is back from Honduras camp, Johnston is nearing a return, while Osorio and O’Neill, the latter of whom also left early on Saturday, may be ready to return to the starting XI this weekend.

“Yeah, [Flores] is good, he's back,” confirmed Herdman. “We'll see what the lineup looks like tomorrow.”

Lining up opposite, in a quirk of the cross-conference scheduling for the first time since 2019, will be Sporting KC.

Peter Vermes’ side are off to a decent start, drawing their first three matches – away to the Houston Dynamo and LAFC; at home against the Philadelphia Union – before splitting a pair of home matches with a win over the San Jose Earthquakes and a defeat this past weekend to the LA Galaxy.

Kansas City took a two-goal lead against Los Angeles, only to be overtaken by a strong second half comeback from the visiting side.

The last three meetings between TFC and Sporting KC have ended in draws, but Kansas City won six of the seven before that. Toronto has not won in the all-time series since 2013 – Osorio’s debut match at the Rogers Centre.

“That's a hell of a record,” admitted Herdman. “I don’t think Peter Vermes has ever lost. I was listening to him yesterday, he loves coming to Toronto.”

“This is a coach that's got his team [drilled], they can run on autopilot and that's the exciting task we have ahead of us,” he continued. “So much experience in that team and you can see when they get into a rhythm, they really get into a rhythm. You think you know what they're going to do because it's quite consistent, but their speed of being able to do it and their anticipation of what's coming next, they're always a step ahead of you. No matter how much you try and prepare to take away what he does every week, they just do it so well.”

Evidence from last weekend introduced an added wrinkle for Saturday.

“[Vermes, a staunch 4-3-3 man] adapted his tactics for the Galaxy game with [captain and winger Johnny] Russell injured,” Herdman spotted. “It forced him into like a 4-2-3-1 with [Alan] Pulido and [Willy] Agada up front. He doesn't usually do that, but they had some real success. He might go back to it.”

“You do all the work on Kansas City and then they may show up with a different style of play,” he mused. “Agada and Pulido looked very good together against the Galaxy, that will cause us some problems.”

Regardless of how Kansas City takes shape, Toronto will be looking to keep the pace set by the opening five matches.

“This Phase Three is 10 games and we have a points-per-game marker that we wanted to stay on course with,” said Herdman. “Winning last week at home was critical. We're right on track to where this team have set their goals. We're on track to where we want to be by the end of the season.”

“Two points-per-game, it's a pretty good clip in MLS. You’re heading towards the top four if you can maintain that sort of standard,” he continued. “Given the squad has had a lot of injuries, there's been a lot of turnover, [Richie] has been available for only 45 minutes, and we haven't been able to bring in all the players we would like to prior to preseason, they've done well this group.”

“The staff, the players,” Herdman added.

“Everyone's bound together in commitment to building trust.”

There’s a word for that.

“Everything comes from what we do on the training pitch, the meetings and stuff with the coaches,” credited Kerr. “All of that contributes to the games.”

“There's just a real intensity to everything we do,” he highlighted. “A real commitment to everything we do, and just a belief in each other – having that brotherhood.”