The last time both teams met, Toronto were without a win all season and went on to break MLS records for all the wrong reasons. With a change in coach came a change in fortune and now TFC are looking a much better side - winning three of their last four. I will briefly examine what's changed with TFC under Paul Mariner before identifying some tactical points to look out for during tomorrow's match:
Changes Under Coach Mariner:
The major difference between Winter and Mariner is the change in formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 system with a few variations. The 4-4-2 has brought some major changes in player positions which has helped Toronto tremendously.
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on TFC
Starting at the back, youngster Adam Eckersley has moved to center back from his outside position under Winter. Against Houston last week, Eckersley had a brilliant game, making many last ditch tackles and stepping in to win the ball off the toes of the Houston strikers. He’s formed a good partnership at heart of the defense with rookie Logan Emory.
Eckersley's move to the middle has allowed veteran Torsten Frings to take up his more suited position in the center of midfield.
In attack, former Fire player Ryan Johnson has moved from his wide position into a more central role. Johnson plays very well with his back to goal and is a lot better suited to a physical battle with a center back rather than trying to take on a defender on the outside. Johnson's form has softened the loss of Danny Koevermans to an ACL tear and his potential partnership with new striker Eric Hassli has the potential to make TFC's attack one of the most feared in MLS.
Set Pieces: New Coach, Same Old Threat
For all the changes that Paul Mariner has brought to TFC, one stalwart is the team's reliance of set pieces to create scoring chances.
Every time a TFC player is fouled within 50 meters of the opponent’s goal, the same thing happens: Torsten Frings will pick up the ball while the big boys trudge up from the back to take up a position in the opponent’s box. Frings's deliveries can be hit or miss but more often than not, he puts it in a dangerous area.
Frings also takes all of TFC's corners which also have a habit of wrecking havoc in the six-yard box. In Toronto's 5-1 win over Aguila Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League, they scored one goal from a corner kick and had another goal called offside from a Frings free kick that was put in on a rebound.
The Fire back line and Sean Johnson have been criticized in the past for not dealing well with set pieces and though they have been defensively sound for most of the season, Toronto’s skill in dead ball situations will remain a major threat Saturday night.
Lack of Pace in the Middle: Take Advantage
Similar to the Fire, TFC has two defensive-minded central midfielders in Frings and Terry Dunfield. Their job is to sit in front of the back four but also provide support in attack whenever they can.
As mentioned earlier, Frings is often dragged forward to take set-pieces and this can be where TFC are most vulnerable.
Against Houston last week, TFC were caught multiple times on the counter attack, either from giving the ball away in the midfield or after an attacking set piece. Dunfield and Frings make up for their lack of pace by reading the game expertly - (similar to what Pavel Pardo does for the Fire) but unlike Pardo and Logan Pause, Dunfield and Frings have a tendency to get too far apart from each other on the pitch - something the Fire could exploit on Saturday night.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 2, Toronto FC 0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.