Heading into the final match before the October international break, Toronto FC will be looking to continue their good run of form.
The club comes into Sunday’s clash against the Chicago Fire at BMO Field with a smile on their face.
Unbeaten in three matches, four in all competitions if one includes the Canadian Championship win over York United FC, TFC found some joy in the second half surge against FC Cincinnati midweek.
Trailing 1-0 at half-time, Javier Perez’s side came out intent on turning the tide and turn it they did with three goals in the opening 20 minutes of the half.
“The game on Wednesday was very important, not only for the result, but as well the way we were playing, the way we were connecting,” said Perez during his prematch Zoom call. “The team is finally clicking and you could see at some stretches of the game we could have fun, just by connecting the passes, by finding opportunities.”
“That’s extremely important because that's ultimately what is going to bring alive the team,” he continued. “It's very important for us to provide that platform, for the coaching staff, the club staff, to give them all the resources that they need and they can come to the field and do what they do best, which is playing and playing free.”
Jacob Shaffelburg, Ifunanyachi Achara, and Yeferson Soteldo were central to all three goals. Their ability to unbalance defenders and get in behind has been instrumental to this stretch. Shaffelburg has two goals and two assists in his last three league appearances, while Soteldo has three helpers over that same stretch, bringing his season tally up to nine.
Shaffelburg was the talk of the game on Wednesday, but Soteldo deserved praise as well.
“When you go to a new country, where you don't even speak the language, you have new teammates, not everything is easy,” said Perez. “But he's finding his place as a player, as a person in the club, and we are very happy to have him here, especially when he's playing the way he's playing.”
“We see him now integrated in the group, he’s earned the respect of everybody by his commitment. He's trying to push himself to the next stage, which is contributing more, whether it is giving assists or scoring goals,” he continued. “I think we're going to see more of him, more of his quality and how he's going to interact with his teammates. Right now, he’s in a good place.”
Asked for a common thread in the results, Michael Bradley said: “It's been some consistency in who has been on the field.”
“Jacob and Achara have played a big role in terms of their quality and their profile: they're fast, they put defenders on their heels, when they don't have the ball they're looking to run and run behind the defence and they're not guys who necessarily want every ball to their feet,” he elaborated. “And so when you get some guys who are fast and dynamic and who bring quality in some of those wide areas that part can turn the tables for you in a really good way.”
“It's football, there's never one thing,” Bradley continued. “The balance in the relationships in the back and in the midfield have been good. We're not going to sit here and go crazy and pretend like now everything has been perfect or amazing – that wouldn't be true and it wouldn't be fair to some of the guys who aren't on the field over this last stretch. In a difficult year, it's still been positive that we've been able to put together some good results and we're going to want to continue to add to that.”
Playing the seventh game since September 11, attention now turns to the visit of Chicago before the league pauses for a well-deserved break.
For the second time in as many matches, TFC will be facing a team who recently parted ways with their head coach.
It was announced on Thursday, a day after a 2-0 win over NYCFC, that Rafael Wicky would be leaving and assistant coach, Frank Klopas, would be taking over the duties in the interim.
“It's always challenging when you play a team that just replaced the coach, the motivation is going to be there,” said Perez. “In this case it's a new coach, but he's not a new coach because Frank has been with the team from the beginning of the season and he has been in charge of the group at times when the coach has to go away.”
“I expect a team very similar to the way they have been playing in the last few games,” forecast the coach. “Against NYCFC they played in a 5-3-2 and they play very energetically with a lot of pressure at the front. They commit the wing-backs high and leave at the back the three centre-backs – it can be [Mauricio] Pineda, [Johan] Kappelhof, and [Jonathan] Bornstein or at times [Carlos] Teran as well.”
“They are very talented,” Perez cautioned. “We had difficulties when we played against them in Chicago, especially when they were playing the ball wide. They commit a lot of numbers inside the box, always two/three players ready to finish. That makes them a very uncomfortable team to play against.”
“And then, it’s a team that basically scores two ways: on set-pieces and on crosses/cutbacks, so we know the danger is going to come from these two main areas,” he added. “It's going to be a difficult game. It’s going to be the same message to our team, our players: we need to dictate the tempo of the game from the first minute, otherwise if we let them take control of the game then we're going to have difficulties.”
Chicago come in unbeaten in two matches themselves, a 0-0 draw against Nashville SC preceded their midweek win over NYCFC, but they have lost their last three away matches, by a combined score of 7-0.
The two sides have already met once this season with TFC winning 2-1 over the Fire back on July 24 in Chicago: Soteldo scored early and Nick DeLeon made it two in the 76th minute only for Alvaro Medran to pull one back immediately, setting up a tense final quarter of an hour.
“It's hard to know exactly what to expect,” explained Bradley. “Obviously it's a team that, even though they fired their coach, has picked up a few decent results. It's still a good team, it's still a team with some interesting pieces in different spots. It's hard to know tactically now will they continue to do the same things that they were doing or will they try to tweak things around?”
“We'll be ready for anything,” he stressed. “For where we are right now, it's still about us, it's still about trying to step on the field, enjoy playing in our stadium in front of our fans, continue the positive run that we've been on and continue to improve individually, collectively, try to play in a way where people who are watching, our fans, still understand that there's pride in playing for this club even at the end of the year that hasn't gone the way anybody would have hoped.”
“There's still a big responsibility there,” added the captain. “We want to continue to pick up points so that we finish as high up the table as possible and we know that we still have a semifinal in the Canadian championship to play. Even in a difficult moment, there's still a lot there for us.”