With Sporting KC traveling across the border to face Toronto FC this week, I got with Mitchell Tierney from over at the Toronto SB Nation blog, Waking the Red. Here are three questions but really six about the match.
We Ask Them...
The Blue Testament: Giovinco picked up an injury a couple weeks ago and had to miss the match with Vancouver. Will he be fit for Friday night?
Mitchell Tierney: Giovinco's injury was minor, a contusion, and he is already back in training. With the international break he had the opportunity to go back to Italy and get treatment, so he will almost certainly be starting for Toronto. The bigger concern might be Armando Cooper, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore all of whom have a World Cup qualifier in Panama this week before flying back to Toronto to play in the home opener a few days later. Bradley is almost impossible to keep out of the lineup, but given Altidore's injury concerns in the past, there is a possibility he doesn't start the match. That would be a big loss for Toronto FC, as Altidore has been the team's best player so far this year and leads the team in scoring with a pair of goals. If he isn't in starting condition, look for Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts to get his second straight start.
TBT: Jozy Altidore scored 10 regular season goals last season so I'm using that as the line. Altidore over/under 10 goals this season and why?
MT: I'm going with the over, I mean we are three weeks in and he already has two. This is, of course, provided he stays relatively healthy. Hamstring injuries meant a slow start to last season, and after a brief return, he once again hurt himself. This had many wondering aloud, including myself, if Toronto should move on from him if he wasn't going to be fit. Since coming back from that second injury he has done nothing but prove us all wrong. Altidore has been the hottest striker in the league since mid-summer. Since the start of August 2016, and including playoffs, Altidore has scored 18 goals in 25 matches. It is some of the best soccer he has played in his career and shows no sign of slowing down. A healthy Altidore not only smashes in over 10 goals, he might even be in contention for this year's Golden Boot.
TBT: Toronto reached MLS Cup but failed to hoist the trophy last year. TFC are unbeaten in each of their first three matches, which have all been on the road. Do they have all the tools to reach to the final again this year?
MT: The 2017 edition of Toronto FC is even better on paper than the 2016 edition. This summer the team was able to keep their core group together, playing the first game of the season with the exact same starting eleven that started MLS Cup. To that group they have added former Belgian League player of the year Victor Vazquez, who they are hoping will be the missing piece. TFC's biggest kryptonite last season, especially at home, was teams who bunkered up defensively and clogged the middle of the pitch. They didn't have a player in the midfield who was enough of an attacking threat to consistently break sturdy defensive teams down. Vazquez appears to be that player, as he has already scored a goal this season and looks to be a quality distributor of the ball.
They Ask Us...
Waking the Red: Not the busiest off season for you guys, but who is the new face or faces that Toronto FC fans should be aware of?
Cody Bradley: Actually this off season saw more changes than we have become used to as SKC fans. After three straight years of early crashes from the playoffs, Vermes switched up about a third of the roster. The big one to keep an eye on Gerso on the wing. He was brought in a DP and he's shown a lot of speed and creativity thus far. Illie Sanchez is another new face who is a driving force of this squad. He is a former Barcelona B man, something PV has become quite fond of, and immediately earned the starting job at the all important holding midfield role.
Moreover, a new right back was brought in by the name of Graham Zusi, not sure if you know him. But really the position change opened up a lot for this team and he has actually been fitting in very nicely to that back line. Another newbie you might get to see is Latif Blessing. He led the Ghanaian Premier League with goals as a teenager last year. He is really tiny, and stupid fast. That is the only way I can describe it. Stupid. If he gets on the field he will be opposite the speedy Gerso on the wing and they can create all sorts of problems for a defense.
WtR: Two clean sheets and only one goal allowed so far, what's been the key to your defensive success early this season?
CB: It has to be the familiarity on the back line. These four guys have played together for years now. Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic are together on the left and they have been playing together for basically their whole lives as KC natives. Ike Opara has been here for four years and Graham Zusi has been here for 8 years. These guys know exactly how to play off each other. The amount of unspoken communication that must go on between them is staggering.
Obviously you need some luck on your side as well. Other teams have missed open chances, Tim Melia stopped a penalty and saved points multiple times this year, and you have to think Zusi is a liability in defensive 1v1 situations. But they have been grinding out results and bailing out the offense who hasn't quite found their footing yet.
WtR: Sporting Kansas City only picked up 14 road points last season. What went wrong on the road that they can turn around this year?
CB: Last year was a very frustrating year for SKC Nation. They were rarely getting blown out. It isn't like they weren't showing up to play on the road. Teams started to figure out that you could give SKC the lion's share of possession, but they can't score. Often times it felt like KC was dominating these matches moving the ball around but missing chance after chance. Sporting gave themselves a chance just about every single one of those away matches, but for some reason could not find the last bit of magic. If they were in a position to win it for most of the game, they'd fail to extend the lead and the home team would steal points at the death. Or they would fight hard for a draw - unable to find a finishing product - and then they would concede a winner at the end. The margins were so thin, it was unbelievable. But that is part of the reason there was more of an overhaul than normal. Vermes is in a much better position with his attacking options than last year. No more hoping for a miracle from an out of form Brad Davis, and no more underachieving Zusi on the wing. Now there is pace, creativity, and - more importantly - options. Also, Sanchez locking down the holding midfield role has allowed Benny Feilhaber to stay further up the pitch and get more involved in the attack.
While the goal total would indicate that finishing issue from last year hasn't quite been resolved, there have been enough encouraging signs and results that fans aren't worrying too much yet.