St. Louis City SC midfielder Eduard Löwen carries the ball up field in a home game played earlier this season. Löwen, listed as "questionable", could make a return to the team in Toronto after dealing with an injury for a few weeks. (Photo by Brad Piros)

ST. LOUIS - For the first time in their short history, St. Louis City SC heads to Canada for MLS action this weekend, where they’ll face a Toronto FC team that sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

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While St. Louis has reclaimed their spot atop the West, Toronto has slid to the doldrums of Major League Soccer with just 19 points. Only Inter Miami and City’s last opponent, Colorado, have lower points totals (17 and 14) this MLS season.

Toronto very recently fired former US National Team manager Bob Bradley, with MLS veteran Terry Dunfield currently leading the team in an interim role. Bradley wasn’t just the head coach of Toronto, but also their Sporting Director.

Toronto FC was 14-26-19 since Bradley’s appointment before the 2022 season, a rather abysmal record. This is a team that finished as MLS Cup runners-up in 2019 and made the playoffs in 2020 despite not being able to play in Canada due to COVID measures.

2021 forced the change to bring Bradley in, finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference, with Jozy Altidore leading the team with just four goals all season. It was rock bottom, and 2022 and 2023 got even worse with Bob Bradley at the helm.

And that was with the big-money Italian influx of 2022. Italian international star Lorenzo Insigne signed with Toronto in January of last year, leaving current Italian Serie A Champions Napoli. The team also signed Italian defender and Insigne’s friend, Domenico Criscito, from Italian side Genoa.

Last but certainly not least in Toronto’s Italian Job was Federico Bernardeschi, a star for Juventus, one of the biggest clubs in the world of soccer, who signed last summer on a four-year deal. Bernardeschi has also been a regular for the Azzurri, the Italian National Team.

The big-money moves brought plenty of attention to Toronto FC, but the team has struggled mightily. Two of those Italian stars are still there, Bernardeschi and Insigne, and “there” is about the best way to describe their performances in 2023.

It’s growingly apparent that not many want to be playing for Toronto at the moment, especially Federico Bernardeschi, who was sent off early in the second half of Toronto’s 4-0 loss in Orlando last Saturday for a needless headbutt to Orlando’s Wilder Cartagena.

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Saturday felt like the “rock bottom” moment for Toronto. Their fourth straight loss, the worst of them, seven straight without a win, and a growing injury list, one that threatens to deplete a team that’s already flailing at the bottom of the league standings.

Toronto FC captain and midfielder Michael Bradley is out, starting defender Matt Hedges is out, Lorenzo Insigne is questionable, Federico Bernardeschi is out after his headbutt last Saturday, and countless other injuries further decimate the Toronto team sheet.

Toronto will also be without starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson and midfielder and joint-top scorer Jonathan Osorio on international duty in Gold Cup action this weekend. Johnson will be with the US team, and Osorio will be with the Canadians when the US and Canada face off in knockout play on Sunday.

So top of the Western Conference St. Louis City faces a bad Toronto FC team with a lot of players missing. Sounds like an easy three points, right? It’s not always that straightforward, as City head coach Bradley Carnell said Thursday.

“There’s a narrative with Toronto, whatever’s happening with players on their side, what’s gone on with their coaching staff, but it’s nothing for us to worry about,” Bradley Carnell said of how Toronto’s tumultuous season shapes Saturday’s contest. “We would prefer to face Toronto with all their stars, we would like to meet them at their best.”

“But that’s not the case. Now there’s a bunch of guys trying to prove something for themselves, (Toronto FC 2) MLS NEXT Pro guys, guys playing for spots, guys playing for their lives, right? There are guys playing for their livelihood, and that’s always difficult… So we cannot be complacent, we don’t want to rest on what we’ve done historically.”

City, no stranger to injury trouble and roster rotation of their own, were given a boost by midfield stalwart Eduard Löwen returning to training this week, and even more so by his status upgrade to “questionable” for Saturday’s game in Toronto. For the first time since his injury, Löwen will travel and hope to be a part of the matchday squad.

“(Löwen)’s gained considerable minutes (in training),” said Carnell. “He’s very eager to jump in and get going, which shows that he feels really comfortable in his body and the treatment’s gone well.”

Bradley Carnell is a big believer in ramping up playing time for injured players. We’ve seen it on the field with Njabulo Blom and Rasmus Alm so far this season, and will see it in the upcoming weeks and months with Löwen, Klauss, and defender Joakim Nilsson.

Joakim Nilsson also was a full participant in training this week as he looks to make his team debut, but wasn’t given a similar status upgrade. Nilsson hasn’t played a minute in City colors, after having a knee surgery in January, but factors to be a key cog in the heart of City’s defense alongside Tim Parker.

City, without Nilsson but possibly with Löwen, take to Toronto’s BMO Field at 6:30 central time Saturday, streaming on Apple TV. Local radio broadcasts can be found on KYKY 98.1 FM in English and KXOK 102.9 FM in Spanish.

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