Toronto FC

Reds wrap up May looking for back-to-back wins vs. Chicago Fire: “We want to continue the same feeling”

“It's easy to get lost in the algorithmic sauce and believe that that is what life is” - CJ Sapong on social media

The Toronto FC forward was in a contemplative mood on Tuesday after the matchday minus-one training session ahead of a midweek game against the Chicago Fire at BMO Field on Wednesday night. 

“The plight of a professional athlete is you are always determined by your results, you're always determined by your stats. In a good string of games, you are highly-revered. In a bad string of games, people try to point out all the things that go wrong,” balanced Sapong. “And that's even within ourselves. When it's not going our way, we like to point the finger a lot, but what I really do like about this group is, in separate conversations that I have with guys, there's more of a tendency to look at what can be done individually.”

“That is a great characteristic to have,” he continued. “And that's something that gives me confidence, motivation, inspiration every day because I'm talking to 20-year-old kids that are speaking like old souls and stepping on the field and showing hunger.”

May has been unkind to TFC – one win and one draw in five matches, knocked out of the Canadian Championship – but amongst those swirling fates Sapong has seen something in his teammates since arriving from Nashville SC at the end of April. 

He saw it ahead of the opening whistle in Saturday’s 2-1 win over D.C. United. 

“Looking into the eyes of my teammates in the huddle on the field, there was a determination and focus that, to me, showed that there was a clicking within everybody individually,” explained Sapong. “Whatever it takes in an external sense to activate that within guys, that's what it's going to take.”

“Not many people understand what it takes to, day in and day out, have to perform at a high level, especially when people are talking about you,” he continued. “One of the highest forms of success, though it's not really measured, is being able to, when the whistle blows, stay focused and determined. Especially for these young guys – I'm blown away every day, the way they approach training, the way they approach their jobs, the professionalism. Of course we have the sprinkled vets in there, shoring this group up.”

“We do have a lot to prove,” Sapong added. “But it's really to ourselves.”

In a busy stretch, especially when results go against, it’s a mental battle as much as it is physical.

“‘Feel the win, feel the three points,’” Sapong urged prior to the kickoff against D.C. “‘And feel deep down exactly how good it’s going to feel the next couple of days having three points.’”

Having those in pocket helps with the quick turnarounds.

After Chicago, Toronto will hit the road for a date on Saturday away to Minnesota United before the pace of matches slows in June.

“Oh, yeah, 100% – a lot easier,” smiled Sapong. “Body feels a little better, the sun is shining a little brighter, food tastes better, all those things.”

“Just like life though, it ebbs and flows,” he continued. “Even the last couple of weeks where it hasn't been going our way, credit to the guys, credit to the staff for being able to find the silver linings and continue to use that to put our best foot forward.”

“The truest character is really tested in those moments,” Sapong added. “The game this past weekend, in my eyes, it takes a lot more to have that kind of performance given where we have been and the results we have gotten.”

He feels a certain resonance from Saturday in the group this week.

“The vibration has been up, been high,” Sapong noted. “And moving forward where we're trying to build off of this and continue to feel the same feeling.”

Life goes on.

“There was life before the game,” said Bob Bradley, asked how he has seen the win impact the group. “There was a good feeling after the game and now we're going to try to do it again.”

Chicago comes to town in a mood of their own. 

The Fire drew their last two matches 3-3, raucous draws at home against Atlanta United and away to the New England Revolution.

In the four MLS matches since Frank Klopas took over from Ezra Hendrickson, Chicago have lost just once – 2-1 away to Charlotte FC. Klopas’ tenure began on May 13 with a 1-0 win over high-flying St. Louis City SC.

“The main thing is that you see more from [Xherdan] Shaqiri again,” highlighted Bradley. “He’s an important player – playmaker, left-footed, creative. The ways that he moves around, how they use him to set-up different situations. I see that back the way it was when he was at his best.”

Shaqiri has four assists in five matches, including a US Open Cup win over Austin FC that advanced Chicago to the quarterfinals.

“They've changed in terms of structure from game-to-game, a little bit according to the opponent,” added Bradley of the impact of the coaching change. “The biggest thing I see is that [Klopas] has found a way to get Shaqiri feeling good about things, get him going. That's the most obvious thing that I see when I watch their games of late.”

Kei Kamara leads the side with four goals in 11 appearances, while 19-year-old midfielder Brian Gutiérrez has five assists in 13 outings.

“They've been doing well,” said Sapong. “They have an ability to make things happen out of nowhere. We also know that with our ability we can definitely provide some trouble for them as well.”

“Shaqiri has had a bit of a resurgence, he's always going to pose a threat. My boy, Kei Kamara, I know at some point he's going to be on the field and I'm just telling my guys, ‘Hey, watch this man,’” he added. “They can make some things happen, but it's a good matchup for us. Ultimately we will see tomorrow, but I got my guys.”