TORONTO – When Sporting Kansas City comes to BMO Field on Friday night, both teams will look a little bit different.
Both Toronto FC and their opponent will be without the services of a handful of players who are representing their national teams.
The absences of regular starters Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Jonathan Osorio, as well as Ashtone Morgan and Noble Okello, means that others will have to step up.
“Be confident, be themselves, just try to do their part, their role; keep the game simple, but look for their opportunities to make a difference,” urged Greg Vanney on Wednesday. “They shouldn't go out there and be afraid to be the guy who makes the difference on the day.”
“Confident in themselves, their understanding of what we do,” added Vanney. “And also just to be aggressive, physically and mentally present, and play naturally.”
That message goes doubly for moments in front of goal.
Where the goals flowed through the first seven matches and TFC scored 21 times, in the last six just three have bulged the twine.
Vanney looked to Osorio's prodigious output in 2018 as inspiration for every player.
“You saw it last year: Oso, who wasn't your typical goal-scorer, but once he got into a rhythm, got that confidence, and he was thinking 'goal',” recalled Vanney. “When he was anywhere around the box, his first thought is 'how do I get this on frame?' That's where we have to be.”
“We have to be thinking 'finishing' more, trying to finish in one-touch more, not always trying to control the ball, look for the best pass, the most incredible shot. We've got to be thinking 'finish', thinking confidence and just hit the back of the net,” continued Vanney. “It's just like basketball when you have finishers, you've just got to keep trying to put the ball in the back of the net, eventually something is going to fall and you start to get into a rhythm.”
Speaking of basketball, with the Toronto Raptors set to face the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Friday's match has been moved forward an hour – kickoff is set for 7 p.m. – and the Raps game will be shown on the big screen at BMO afterwards.
Catch two great matches at our house ⚽️➡️🏀— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) June 4, 2019
Stay in your seats through the final whistle to catch Game 4 of the #NBAFinals. Concessions will stay open through the conclusion of the @Raptors game
🎟️➡️: https://t.co/7MYOWEVnMe#TFCLive x #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/i2Wf6QLhuz
Before that important match, there is another.
“It's big, all games are, we try to take it one game at a time,” said Drew Moor. “We know we're in a bit of a rut, we're well aware of that, we want to put things right on Friday night.”
While Toronto enters winless in six, Kansas City have begun to turn around a difficult spell that followed from their run in the Concacaf Champions League, picking up a win and a draw in their last three matches, most recently a 1-1 away to the Houston Dynamo.
Having lost once in their opening six matches, with three draws, when the injury bug bit mid-April after getting knocked out in the semifinals by Mexican side CF Monterrey SKC, the longest standing MLS side in the competition, struggled in league play, winning just once in their next eight matches.
Toronto will not be fooled by the current standings.
“They're a good team,” reminded Moor. “They had a packed schedule, we know how that goes with them doing well in the Champions League. They've got some good players; they're pragmatic in the way they play.”
“They like their wide play, like getting crosses in the box,” continued Moor. “We don't see them that often, but we know them well. They've kept the same core guys together and they're a team that likes to play the game on their terms. They possess the ball well. It's important that we're well-aware of all their tendencies. We've watched video on them this week, the tactical side of training has been very focused on what they like to do and we're going to try to disrupt that.”
Toronto and Kansas City have met 25 times over the years, with Sporting KC holding the advantage with 14 wins to TFC's four – seven other matches have ended in draws. Whereas in recent years TFC has made up ground in the all-time records against most teams, Sporting KC has maintained the gap they built since winning the first-ever match at BMO Field in 2007.
Sporting KC are unbeaten in nine against TFC, stretching back to a Toronto home win in 2013, though the last two, including a 2-2 in Kansas City last July, have ended in draws. SKC have taken points from their last four visits to BMO Field.
With Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber in the squad, Peter Vermes' side is a familiar one.
“They're well-organized, have had a lot continuity over the years, in terms of their shape, their players; they've got great depth, even though they have been going through that post-CCL injury front that we saw a year ago, they're starting to get some guys back,” said Vanney. “They have a roster that's balanced that when they miss one guy, they can slide the next guy into role.”
“They will play within their system, they're good at getting pressure, good at making things difficult,” cautioned Vanney. “We've got to move the ball quickly, get behind that initial pressure, if we do, some space will open up.”
“I don't think they'll come in and sit on top of their box like we've seen in other games. This game will have a different look than the Vancouver game,” added Vanney. “We've got to be ready to manage that and handle that. They'll put more numbers than we saw last week, we've got to be able to defend that well.”
Like Toronto, Sporting KC will be without several key pieces: top-scorers Johnny Russell and Krisztian Nemeth are away with their national sides (Scotland and Hungary, respectively), while defender Botond Barath (Hungary) and former Red, Nico Hasler (Liechtenstein), are also on international duty.
And their injury list is still substantial with Roger Espinoza, Erik Hurtado, Rodney Wallace, Gerso Fernandez, and teenage defender Jaylin Lindsey all set to miss out.
Despite those absences, Vanney is adamant that Vermes has “options” in attack.
“They've used [French designated player Yohan] Croizet up top – he's a shifty guy, not a natural #9 type of striker. He can move around the field, create problems. Graham Zusi looks like he's back in the fold – they can use him as a winger, as a right-back, he's capable of both. [Felipe] Gutierrez is a good player, [Gianluca] Busio is a good young player, [Daniel] Salloi,” listed Vanney.
Gutierrez has four goals and Busio three, the top contributors behind Russell and Nemeth who have seven apiece.
“They have guys who are dangerous, play in these wide, winger positions. They could do a variety of things with the striker position, between playing a guy who is more naturally a winger, or a runner, or a dribbler, versus a pure target guy; I've seen them do that in the past,” suggested Vanney. “What will not change is the structure of team and the things they play for – [that] will stay pretty consistent. Slightly different personalities in different roles.”
In the end, none of that matters in the 11-vs-11 on the day: the same three points are on offer; they matter the same when the regular season comes to an end.
“I don't think it factors in much,” said Moor of the uncertainty on both sides. “It happens over the course of the season with international call-ups, suspensions, injuries. Depth is tested.”
“Ours has already been tested this season,” added Moor. “We're all familiar with each other and we train for situations like this. It's a great opportunity for all of us to step up, make sure we're working towards three points each time we step on the field.”