Toronto FC looks to continue its climb out of the nether regions of Major League Soccer and dispatch another team under new management when it hosts Chicago Fire FC on Sunday.
Toronto (5-15-7) rallied mid-week for a 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati, which fired coach Jaap Stam on Monday, to move out of the MLS basement and extend its unbeaten run in all competitions to four games (3-0-1).
Chicago canned coach Raphael Wicky on Thursday with assistant coach Frank Klopas taking over the team on an interim basis. Klopas was the club's head coach from 2011 to 2013 before taking over Montreal, which fired him in August 2015 following a 2-1 loss to Toronto.
"It's professional sports and we all depend on results in the end," Chicago's sporting director Georg Heitz said this week. "And we didn't deliver the results we all want to deliver."
Chicago (7-15-6) arrives five points ahead of Toronto in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. At 1-10-1, it has the league's worst road record (Toronto is second-worst at 2-11-2, not counting the home games it played in Florida when based south of the border due to pandemic-related travel restrictions).
"It's hard to know exactly what to expect. It's still a good team," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. "It's a team with some interesting pieces in different spots."
Both teams endured nightmarish starts to the season.
Toronto fired first-year coach Chris Armas on July 4, with the team mired in a six-game losing streak at 1-8-2. Chicago stumbled to a 1-7-1 start, scoring just four goals along the way.
With seven games remaining, Toronto is 17 points out of the playoff picture with only 21 points left available on the table. The post-season is officially soon about to slip out of sight.
Sunday's game is followed by an international break, with six TFC players joining their national teams: Richie Laryea, Jonathan Osorio and Jacob Shaffelburg (Canada), Eriq Zavaleta (El Salvador), Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) and Yeferson Soteldo (Venezuela).
Toronto doesn't play again until Oct. 16, at home to Atlanta United.
Shaffelburg was the star Wednesday against Cincinnati, scoring one goal and setting up the other two as Toronto rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit with three goals in 17 minutes. It marked the first time in 18 games (1-14-3) this season that TFC has won after conceding first.
The victory came despite the injury absence of forwards Ayo Akinola, Jozy Altidore, Dom Dwyer and Jordan Perruzza as well as Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, midfielders Ralph Priso and Tsubasa Endoh, and defenders Chris Mavinga and Zavaleta.
While Akinola, Endoh and Priso are done for the season after surgery, coach Javier Perez says he expects Altidore to return to action this year after a foot operation in mid-August.
Pozuelo, who has missed the last six games in all competitions with a lower body injury, has been training this week. But Perez said a decision on his availability for Sunday would be made on the eve of the game, saying if he did take part it would be off the bench.
"He's the only one I can confirm that has a realistic possibility to come back into the team (Sunday)," said Perez.
Chicago pulled the coaching trigger Thursday after a 2-0 win over visiting New York City FC that snapped a five-game winless streak (0-4-1).
The Fire became the seventh team this season to changes coaches following Atlanta (Gabriel Heinze), Cincinnati (Jaap Stam), Dallas (Luchi Gonzalez), Real Salt Lake (Freddy Juarez), Toronto (Armas) and Vancouver (Marc Dos Santos).
Heitz said the club decided not to pick up Wicky's 2022 contract option and to sever ties immediately so he could fly home to Switzerland to rejoin his family. Wicky left the club earlier in the season because of a health emergency involving his father.
Wicky compiled a 12-25-14 regular season record in two years at Chicago's helm, finishing one point out of the playoffs in 2020 when the team lost 4-3 loss to NYCFC in the season finale at Soldier Field.
Toronto is undefeated in its last 12 games (9-0-3) against Chicago, dating back to Sept. 26, 2015. The Fire’s last victory in the series came on April 4, 2015, a 3-2 win in Bridgeview, Ill., that capped a 12-game Fire undefeated streak in the series (6-0-6), dating back to 2010.
TFC won 2-1 when they met earlier this season, July 24 at Soldier Field. Toronto then went on a nine-game winless run (0-7-2) that didn't end until a 2-1 victory over visiting Nashville SC on Sept. 18.
Despite its record, Chicago is a threat to score from set pieces and crosses, according to Perez.
"We need to dictate the tempo of the game from the first minute. Otherwise they will take control of the game and we're going to have difficulties," said Perez.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press