Amazing what a difference a win makes, isn't it? A week ago the Fire were the moribund, sad-sack loser of MLS - bottom of the league in the standings, on the balance sheet, and through the turnstiles, their tickets being sold online in secondary markets for three fingernail clippings and a skosh of belly-button lint. As they take the field Sunday, the Men in Red will swagger out now 18th on the combined table, and, ehh ... well, all that other stuff will hopefully sort itself out once the team's somewhere in the middle of the pack and climbing.
A win for the Men in Red against visiting Toronto FC would go a long way toward making that heady [sic] aspiration a reality, and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The Fire managed to defeat Philadelphia without the services of Designated Players Shaun Maloney and David Accam; both return Saturday. The addition of Víctor Pérez could make an even sturdier investment in possession football possible. Even Razvan Cocis has returned to practice; it's springtime, Chicago! Add in the fact that Toronto FC winning in the Windy City is an idea akin to the heat-death of the universe - provably possible, maybe even provably inevitable, but still impossible to imagine actually witnessing - and you've got a heady cocktail for premature confidence-raising.
Frank Yallop is playing along by cheerfully telling anyone who'll listen that [Edward G. Robinson-mode] he's not gonna say a word, see, copper? He's got squad depth and he ain't afraid to use it, see, mister, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar! A liar, y'hear me?[/EGR-mode] And it's true - the Fire have a few distinct tactical possibilities for how to approach this match, each leveraging a slightly different player mix. If Pérez is closer to match-fit than Yallop is letting on - as the Spaniard's interview seems to imply - then there's even more intrigue in the mix. The hour before kickoff will be an interesting time.
All of which is to bypass the real talk of the early season, which is the continued revelation of and wonderment at the astonishing improvement of the club's very beloved first true son, Mr. Harrison Shipp. Shipp's knitted-brow brilliance asked questions that even Maurice Edu's speed, power and experience couldn't answer. And it's not fair, it's desperately not fair to expect more, but here we are, being unfair: We want more. And, by every indication, we're getting it. So much of pleasure involves selecting the variables one weighs and those one discards, so it makes sense to weigh our Harry as the most crucial of our variables. The kid from Lake Forest commands every eye when he's on the ball, which is a phrase I'd not thought to write outside of Football Manager fan-fic just 10 years ago.
Toronto FC are extant proof that merely coming from the land of the ice and snow is no guarantee that one will wield the Hammer of Thor, and that the promise of Valhalla, alas, only comes after death. Last season's meltdown was met with another round of insane spending - Jozy Altidore is now officially making Jimmy Page money, and Giovinco is rumored to be purchasing the castle next door. Chicago shops for Designated Players at Sears; the Red's are haute couture. Again.
In true Toronto tradition, there's plenty of reason to believe that this squad will struggle into the summer. The renovation of BMO Field means the Reds not only start MLS play with a six-game road trip, but also creates crazy fixture congestion for them later in the season. Meaning, in the end, that this top-heavy roster will have to run a gauntlet which will demand a great deal of depth once they finally return home. If Toronto keeps its perfect record of failure intact in 2015, expect this to be mentioned a great deal in the aftermath.
That said, their top-line talent is truly astonishing for MLS. Say what you will about Altidore and his failed stints in England; the kid from New Jersey has proven repeatedly that, when on form, he is the most dominant striking talent the USA have yet produced. And he looks American, in some weird way - hugely muscular, like the nimblest linebacker ever. Giovinco can do things with the ball that seem to fold time, and what he does off the ball may be better. And Michael Bradley may give Landon Donovan a run for his money as the Best 'Murcan Ever once all is said and done.*
In classic MLS fashion, though, the cap will have its say. The defense is thin, and injuries have made it thinner; we're likely to see a draftee and a new signing starting side-by-side in central defense. The Fire's fluidity had the Union grasping at straws in the first half last weekend. If the Reds don't control play outright, Shipp will have time to put his ear to the lock and hear the tumblers fall, with the requisite results.
The aggregated betting lines at Betbrain.com actually have the Fire (say it quietly) as slender favorites for this game, with 37 percent to win, 34 percent for Toronto to take all three points, and 29 percent to draw.
*If only we could see our '98 ball-boy in the red and white of the Fire. In some alternate universe, Shipp is opening eyes as Bradley's new attacking foil, with Stephens the link. Elder Bradley on the sidelines, Jesse Marsch at his side. Wilt in the executive suite. Soldier Field packed and holding our dreams. All unhappiness comes by way of comparison.