TORONTO – Momentum is a fickle beast.
When it's in one's favour, nothing can get in the way. When it isn't, it takes a bit extra to get out of the rut.
It is a force that Toronto FC will look to harness when they travel to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday in need of a result. Of late, it has been against them, but a midweek win over Ottawa Fury FC in the first leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal series may be just what TFC needs to ride the storm.
“Momentum is good, results are good,” said Greg Vanney. “Going there, being tight, getting a shutout, a win, is something to build on. A foundation to accelerate ourselves out of the position that we're in.”
On the outside looking in at the playoff picture, Toronto needs to scrap and claw for every point in the 15 matches remaining this season.
“The win in Ottawa was big,” said Jozy Altidore. “A win is a win, a goal is a goal. These moments can give us a boost going into Chicago. A tough place to play, but we have to start getting results now.”
The Fire are one of those teams standing in TFC's way.
Recent history between the sides favours Toronto, who are unbeaten in seven encounters and have won their last two visits to Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois.
But it was Chicago who celebrated after the 2-2 draw in their previous meeting at BMO Field on April 28 when Alan Gordon scored an equalizer deep in stoppage-time. Jonathan Osorio and Victor Vazquez scored in the first half to give TFC a seemingly commanding lead, but Bastian Schweinsteiger made it a match in the second frame, setting the stage for former Red Gordon's heroics.
Bolstered by more familiar faces this week – Raheem Edwards joined from the Montreal Impact and Nicolas Hasler was traded to the Fire on Friday in exchange for Jon Bakero – the Fire enter on a downturn, having lost their last three matches, but still they have plenty of weapons with which to threaten.
“[Nemanja] Nikolic is a guy who ends up on the end of a lot of things,” said Vanney of last year's Golden Boot winner. “He's a clever runner, always threatening the back-line and the space in behind. He's a worker in the box.”
“Schweinsteiger, Dax [McCarty] are the guys who control the game,” noted Vanney. “And the guy you've got to keep in check is [Aleksandar] Katai: coming off the wings, he's a good one-on-one player, he'll go left, he'll go right; he sets up and scores. They have guys who you've got to keep an eye on.”
Katai leads the side with nine goals and three assists, equalling Nikolic's tally but with three times the number of helpers. Schweinsteiger has proven the key set-up man with six assists.
But none of those players have proven as ruthless in these encounters as Toronto's strikers have: in seven matches against Chicago, Sebastian Giovinco has six goals and five assists; in nine, Altidore has five goals and one assist.
Scoring, however, has not been the cause of TFC's woes.
“If we can get a hold of ball, which we will, and do some of the things we're capable of doing, we can create chances,” said Vanney. “Our focus is on not conceding goals, staying nice and tight, not conceding chances, taking care of the ball. We know when we do those things well, we'll always create chances.”
“Our issue is not the number of goals we're scoring, it's the number we're conceding,” continued Vanney. “That's a two-part thing: defending better and taking care of the ball better. When you have good possession and good attacks, it's not as easy for the opposition to attack you. That's our emphasis: we're going to be a better defensive group.”
The two sides will meet for a third time next Saturday, July 28 at BMO Field.
A series of matches against the same opponents in quick succession, one a cup knockout series, the other heavy with playoff implications. The end of the month could not be more important.
“You can look at each as their own little series,” said Vanney. “Chicago one is important because they're one of the teams we're trying to track down. Points taken or lost are going to be important ones. With Ottawa, it's a true knockout scenario. Two teams, you're going to play them each two times, it has a playoff sense to it.”
And that the matches come thick and fast will serve Toronto well as players begin to return from injury and are in need of minutes.
“[Another meeting with Ottawa] midweek, is a good game to get guys some minutes,” suggested Altidore. “Try to get our rhythm back.”
Rhythm, momentum; just what TFC needs.
Familiarity can breed contempt, or so the saying goes: Toronto and Chicago are set to battle for their playoff lives.
“It's a good thing,” said Altidore of this stretch. “You get the familiarity: you know what they're good at; what they're not good at. But at the same time, you can't get complacent. We have to make sure that we approach it with the same mindset: we're out there to take six points.”