A climb to the top of the Eastern Conference would be a whole lot easier for Toronto FC with some success against Sporting Kansas City.
Its last regular-season chance to gain on the East leader in a head-to-head matchup comes Saturday night in Kansas City.
Toronto (9-7-5) enters the match seven points back of Kansas City (11-6-6) with two games in hand, but it can't seem to break through against the defending MLS Cup champion. Kansas City is 11-4-5 in the series, its best winning percentage (.675) against any MLS team.
It's gotten worse in recent seasons for Toronto, which has gone 1-8-3 in 12 meetings since the start of the 2010 campaign.
"If we want to catch them, we need to take points," Reds coach Ryan Nelsen told the club's official website.
This season, the clubs played to a 2-2 draw May 23 in Kansas City before Sporting won 2-1 in Toronto on July 26.
Toronto's loss didn't feature Jermain Defoe, but that could be different this time around. A groin injury has limited the forward to 73 minutes over the last four games.
"His status is, he's looking positive, looking good, so he might be available," Nelsen said.
The club hasn't slipped up with him out for the last two matches, earning six points in visits to Montreal and Columbus.
Last Saturday's 3-2 victory over the Crew featured goals from Gilberto and Jonathan Osorio before Luke Moore's 84th-minute winner. Moore assisted on the first two goals, has scored in consecutive games and also scored in the first home meeting with Kansas City.
Sporting, meanwhile, is coming off its first loss in nine league matches after falling 2-0 in Vancouver on Sunday. It was also the first time Peter Vermes' club allowed more than a goal in 11 matches. Its 0.96 goals allowed per game trails only Los Angeles (0.95).
The consistency is quite impressive given the ongoing injuries that are likely to extend its season-long streak of never starting the same lineup. Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum is expected to be sidelined for this one due to a right shoulder strain.
Gruenebaum had started six games in place of Eric Kronberg, who is out with a broken hand. That leaves Kansas City with Jon Kempin in net. The 21-year-old replaced Gruenebaum at halftime against the Whitecaps and stopped a penalty kick in the 85th to keep the final 45 minutes scoreless.
There could also be changes in the attack after Vermes' assessment of the effort, in which Sporting was shut out for the first time in 11 matches across all competitions.
"There was no way we were going to put the ball in the back of the net today, nor really create a bunch of chances," Vermes told the club's official website. "That's not going to happen when you have a lackadaisical attitude, and that's my responsibility. I'll be taking care of that pretty quickly."
Midfielder Graham Zusi had scored in the previous two matches, including a 48th-minute goal against Toronto. Zusi has scored 20 league goals in his MLS career, resulting in a 15-0-2 record for Kansas City. When he has an assist, Sporting is 29-1-5.
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