TORONTO – When Michael Bradley talks, reporters listen.
Bradley is not prone to using to cliché, and he abhors hyperbole. There are few wasted words from Toronto FC’s captain and, for the most part, he tells it like it is – he says what he means, and he means what he says.
So, when Bradley states he thinks TFC can beat any team in Major League Soccer, regardless of the situation, that’s not some idle boast, or an attempt to get his teammates motivated. He means it.
Saturday’s road game against the Chicago Fire is a marquee affair. While TFC has earned more road points (17) than any other MLS team this season, the Fire have been unbeatable at home, with 10 wins (including a franchise-record nine straight) and one draw. What’s more, the club from the Windy City have only lost once to TFC at home in 12 contests.
Toronto currently sits atop the overall MLS table with 47 points, with New York City FC (43) and Chicago (41) their closest challengers. This weekend’s match could have big implications on the race for the Supporters’ Shield, the award given to the team who finishes the regular season in first place. Finishing first also guarantees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so this is a pretty crucial game for both sides.
Chicago poses a difficult challenge for Toronto, aside from its outstanding form at home, but also because it boasts a talented side, highlighted by German star Bastian Schweinsteiger, MLS veteran Dax McCarty and forward Nemanja Nikolic, who ranks second in league scoring with 16 goals.
Bradley respects the Fire. He thinks they’re a very good time. Just don’t kid yourselves into believing that the Reds are going to show their hosts on Saturday too much respect.
“One of the most exciting parts about our group this year is we feel like we can beat anybody on any day no matter where we’re playing, and we can do it different ways,” TFC’s captain said. “We’ve got a group that has responded to different challenges in different games, and has always been up for the big moments.”
Make no mistake, this is a big moment.
A win on Saturday would allow Toronto to put a little bit more distance between itself and Chicago. A win by the Fire would draw them a bit closer to the table-topping Reds and, possibly, swing a bit of the momentum in the Supporters’ Shield race in their favour. Losers of two straight, including a 3-0 setback in Montreal on Wednesday, Chicago needs this one badly.
“It’s a team we have a lot of respect for, it’s a team that’s been right there the entire season. They’ve let a few points get away from them in the last few weeks, but we expect a big reaction on Saturday night,” Bradley offered.
“I know that they’ll be ready to put everything into the game to try to win, and we’re excited for that. This is a game that we’ve been looking forward to for a while now. We feel like we’re in a good way … For what we want to do and where we want to go, games like Saturday night are really big.”
With just one victory in their last six games, the Fire come stumbling into this encounter with the Reds. But even though this game doesn’t loom as large as it did just a few weeks ago when Chicago was only two points back of Toronto, it’s still an incredibly important encounter for both sides, and one that coach Greg Vanney isn’t in the least taking lightly.
“They’re right behind us. Anytime we can create separation [from the trailing pack] then we’re going to try to take care of that,” Vanney said.
“We’re in this stretch of the last 10 games of the season, and there are some things that we want to continue to get sharper at and build upon as we move towards the playoffs.”
NOTES: Saturday’s match is the second and final regular-season meeting between Toronto and Chicago. The Reds earned a 3-1 home win on April 21, with Sebastian Giovinco bagging a brace and Eriq Zavaleta also scoring… Chicago have lost five straight league games to Toronto, but only one of those matches was at home. The Fire lead the all-time series against TFC, with nine wins and eight draws in 25 meetings… Next week, Toronto hosts the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, then travels to Montreal to face the Impact on Sunday.