Toronto FC shows slumping Chicago Fire the road to redemption in MLS
Plenty of teams get hot in Major League Soccer. In a salary-capped league of thin margins from top to bottom, positive runs of form can be sustained for months or even for full seasons. Just ask the Colorado Rapids, who went from last place in the West in 2015 to the brink of the MLS Cup final a season ago and have since fallen back off a cliff.
Rarer is the lasting type of organizational culture change that can be sustained. Even in MLS, which prides itself on every-team-has-a-chance parity as kind of corporate ethos, the same core group of contenders tend to end up atop the heap every season. Making a lasting leap in tiers is still somewhat uncommon.
That's why Saturday night's match between first-in-the-East Toronto and third-place Chicago is full of intrigue, even with the upstart Fire slumping.
Chicago's rebuild under sporting director Nelson Rodriguez, who took over in late 2015, and coach Veljko Paunovic, is ahead of schedule.
"We're a little ahead on our game model," Rodriguez said earlier this week in a conference call with local and national media. "I didn't expect the gelling of the team to come together so quickly. But I still don't think it's complete. I don't think it is forged in iron the way the championship teams are. We still have work to do."
The showdown with Toronto is significant as a litmus test, against the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup front-runner the Fire hope to one day become.
It wasn't so long ago that TFC was a league-wide punchline. Toronto entered MLS as an expansion club in 2007 with grand ambitions underpinned by genuine spending power. TFC invested heavily in its squad and infrastructure but didn't so much as qualify for a single postseason until its ninth year, when it was quickly eliminated in the knockout round.
It took years of fits and starts for TFC to develop a coherent long-term strategy and to find a core group of players it can confidently build around. Now it is as dominant a juggernaut as the league has seen in several years.
There is value in adversity, Chicago's Rodriguez argued: There's no simulating the collective bonding experience of Toronto's 2015 playoff defeat to rival Montreal or last year's crushing MLS Cup final loss to Seattle on penalties after Toronto didn't allow a single opposing shot on goal for 120 minutes of play.
You can see evidence of those battle scars in the way TFC has overcome injuries and international absences to take a commanding lead atop the MLS standings this season.
"They've used that as motivation and experience," Rodriguez said. "When I look at [Toronto] ... I say, 'We need time. We still need time.' We still need to improve on what we do and how we do it. We still need to improve our roster, and we need our core group of guys to stay together for three, four years."
So there's some disappointment, obviously, in the way the Fire have struggled since hosting the league's All-Star Game against Real Madrid at the beginning of this month. Chicago entered the break winless in three and has lost two straight heading into the Toronto match.
The stretch has been a test: "I wouldn't say that we failed, but we certainly didn't pass," Rodriguez said. Managing expectations as the league's turnaround story has been another challenge: "That's a different form of test, and it's ongoing."
But more than anything else, the club's brain trust is viewing ongoing adversity as necessary growing pains on the way to what it ultimately wants to accomplish.
There are valid reasons for optimism in Bridgeview on a level unmatched at any point this decade. Early-season designated player signing Bastian Schweinsteiger has been as influential has anybody could have realistically hoped, and there's depth and versatility to a squad that was down to its bare bones as recently as a year ago.
The high points of this season -- eight wins from nine games from mid-May through early July -- are "a fair suggestion of what this team can be," Rodriguez said. "I'm not prepared to say we are there yet. It is enough of an indicator to say we can be a very good and dangerous team."
To get from potentially fluke turnaround team to unimpeachable front-runner might require suffering through stretches like this. It might also mean staring across at an opponent who symbolizes that such a transformation is possible -- as well as how far you still have to go to reach similar heights.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.