The two worst teams in Major League Soccer square off Saturday when FC Cincinnati hosts Toronto FC.
Third-year Cincinnati (3-10-8) is no stranger to the basement. It finished last in its first two years in the league and comes into the game at TQL Stadium with an all-time regular-season record of 13-47-18.
After a prolonged rough entry of its own into the league in 2007, Toronto (3-13-6) has been more accustomed to the penthouse than the outhouse in recent years. It made the MLS Cup final in 2016, '17 and '19 — winning in 2017 — and was runner-up in the Supporters' Shield race last season with a 13-5-5 record.
But times have changed.
Toronto's 15 points after 22 games is a franchise-low. At the same stage last season, it had a club-record 44 points.
Coming off a 3-1 defeat in Montreal on Aug. 27, TFC has lost four straight and is winless in seven (0-5-2). Its last win was July 24, a 2-1 victory at Chicago.
Cincinnati is winless in 12 games (0-4-8) since blanking Toronto 2-0 in Orlando on June 26. It was beaten last time out, 1-0 to Inter Miami on a 90th-minute Brek Shea goal Sept. 4, extending its losing streak to three games.
Asked if Saturday's contest was a must-win, Toronto coach Javier Perez replied: "It was always a must-win situation for us since I was appointed head coach. It's even more urgent, right now. So definitely it's a game against a direct rival that we need three points (from)."
Perez took over the team after first-year coach Chris Armas was fired July 4 in the wake of a 1-8-2 start to the season. The club responded with a 2-0-3 run but has fallen to old habits since, going 0-5-1.
TFC sits 15 points out of the playoffs, with six teams between them and the post-season line. Like Cincinnati, Toronto has less than a one per cent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
In search of some saving grace in a season from hell, Toronto is pinning its hopes on the Canadian Championship with a quarterfinal date against the CPL's York United FC later this month — one of seven games in the next 23 days for TFC.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, has yet to win at home this season, posting a 0-4-5 record.
"We all know the importance of the game," said Cincinnati head coach Jaap Stam. "Every game for us is important … Is it a must-win game? Yeah, we need to try and win every game that we're playing. Toronto is probably talking about that as well.
"But we also need to understand Toronto being last doesn't mean they're easy to beat because they still have a very very good team and very good quality players in their squad … It's not going to be an easy game."
"Of course, it's huge," added Cincinnati forward Calvin Harris. "We know that it's a game that we must win and that we want to win."
Cincinnati's cause wasn't helped this week when starting goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer and two teammates — defender Chris Duvall and midfielder Caleb Stanko — were sidelined by health and safety protocols.
"It's a bit of a difficult situation … We need to keep safe, the ones who are available," said Stam.
Defender Maikel van der Werff is recovering from a sports hernia. Midfielder Joseph-Claude Gyau is questionable with an Achilles injury. Defender Ronald Matarrita returns from international duty with Costa Rica.
Toronto midfielder Noble Okello is suspended after being red-carded last time out.
Winger Yeferson Soteldo played the full 90 minutes in Venezuela's 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Paraguay in Asuncion on Thursday night. He is slated to meet TFC in Cincinnati but may be held back Saturday after the long journey.
Other TFC players returning from international duty are Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio (Canada), Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica), Chris Mavinga (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Eriq Zavaleta (El Salvador).
Perez has had the team working in training on moving the ball faster and shoring up a league-worst defence.
He says the team's attitude remains positive, despite the poor run.
"Nobody's giving up. Everybody's focused. Everybody wants to keep fighting. We know we are in a difficult spot but only we can get out of the hole," said the Spaniard.
Putting his psychologist's hat on, Perez has asked his players to ignore the standings and just focus on the game at hand.
He has not been afraid to make changes, opting to rest veteran midfielder Michael Bradley, traditionally the team's Energizer Bunny, in some instances. Perez says he and the 34-year-old are on the same page.
"Michael is the captain of the team and the leader of the team. But we want Michael at 100 per cent. We don't want Michael 100 per cent of the time at 65 or 70 per cent.
"We have been managing him as well in training," Perez added. "I think we are going to see his best version in the last stretch of the season."
Cincinnati marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with "Salute To Service Night."
Former TFC defender Nick Hagglund is 30 minutes from reaching the 10,000 career MLS minute mark. The 28-year-old spent the first five seasons of his MLS career in Toronto before moving to his hometown club for its inaugural 2019 campaign.
Cincinnati forward Brandon Vazquez can set an MLS record if he comes off the bench Saturday. The former U.S. youth international has made 19 substitute appearances this season, sharing the MLS record for most appearances without a start with Brian Ownby (Houston, 2014) and Jamil Walker (San Jose, 2003).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press