Among Toronto FC’s many problems on the pitch during the 2015 Major League Soccer season, the right side of the defence was an area of particular concern.
It all started in pre-season with coach Greg Vanney’s failed experiment to convert midfielder Warren Creavalle into a right fullback, and it snowballed from there. A number of players filled in during the regular season—including Justin Morrow, who did quite admirably before shifting back to his normal left fullback position—and culminated with Jackson’s horrendous performance in Toronto’s humiliating playoff loss.
In the aftermath of the Reds’ playoff exit, Vanney, team president Bill Manning, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko all talked about the club’s off-season priorities, which included strengthening the defence. Again, the right side of the defence was diagnosed as a problem area. But maybe the solution to the problem is a player who has become a bit of a forgotten man at Toronto FC.
Right fullback Mark Bloom missed all of 2015 due to a series of injuries, including a quad tear that forced him to have surgery over the summer.
Bloom, 28, is currently back home in Florida, working and training at a local performance centre where he’s also undergoing physiotherapy. He’s pain free in his right knee and has a good range of motion, and he expects to be back at full health even before the start of pre-season training camp in January.
“I’m getting up to full speed, running wise. I’ve been kicking the ball around, which feels great. I’m able to strike through really well with no lingering pain or soreness. It’s healing very nicely and I’m feeling stronger each day. I’m feeling more and more confident with it,” Bloom told Sportsnet in a one-on-one conversation.
“I’d say I’m at 85 percent in terms of doing everything, but [my knee is] not quite as strong as it used to be. Right now it’s just about getting that final little bit of strength and power back and that takes time. I should be 100 percent by early January.”
That’s good news for Toronto, as they could use a player of Bloom’s calibre on the back line. Bloom was one of the Reds’ most consistent and reliable defenders during the 2014 season when he made 26 starts at right fullback. Toronto was so impressed with Bloom that they signed him to an extension and gave him a raise even though his contract hadn’t expired.
With Creavalle now out of the picture—he was traded in August—and Morrow back on the left, the starting right fullback spot is wide open, and Bloom thinks he is the answer to the club’s problem at the position.
“I see myself in that starting role. I hope [management] does, too. I understand that we need another right back, and if they go out and get one that won’t hurt my feelings. We need depth. You want two options there like we have on the left with Justin and [Ashtone] Morgan. But I hope I’m that first option, and going into pre-season it’s my goal to prove to them that I am the first option,” Bloom offered.
He later added: “I think things could have been a lot different had I been healthy and been the starter [this past year]. But I got hurt and I couldn’t prove that I was the better option.”
Sitting out the entire 2015 campaign was particularly difficult for Bloom, as he could do nothing but watch TFC go through serious struggles on defence—the team conceded 58 goals, tied for the worst defensive record in the league.
“It was very frustrating that I couldn’t be out there because nobody really took over the right fullback spot. It was a bit of a revolving door each game; I saw someone new playing a position that I tried to make my own. There was this feeling of helplessness that I couldn’t do anything about it,” Bloom said.
There were other psychological obstacles to overcome, too.
“Trying to stay a part of the team was the hardest part. There were a lot of times when I didn’t feel part of the team because I wasn’t contributing and I had different hours when I trained on my own. I was just seeing guys on their way in our out,” Bloom admitted.
The fact Bloom was on his own—his wife Emma and young daughter, Dagny, were back in Florida—made his battle with feeling isolated and alone even more difficult.
“Once you feel as though you’re not part of the team, you feel like your role is pointless. I’m in Toronto to play soccer and when I get injured I can’t even do the one thing that I’m there to do, and I’m away from my family. So you get that feeling of not being part of the team, of worthlessness. It’s a bad place to be so you try to avoid that,” Bloom offered.
“It would have been very easy for me to dwell on the negatives but that affects your day-to-day life, it affects your family, it affects your relationships. So you have to stay positive. I set different milestones; the day I could start jogging, I looked at that as a good day, as opposed to I’m only jogging.”
Amazingly, Bloom kept a positive attitude when he found out in July he would need surgery to repair his torn quad.
“We didn’t know it was completely torn; before that we thought it was a strain so we had a rough timeline of coming back. It came to that six-week point and I still wasn’t able to. That part was really frustrating for me, because you think you're on the brink of coming back but your body isn’t letting you,” Bloom explained.
“But once they told me my quad was torn and I had to have surgery, it was actually better because I knew I had no chance of playing, so it was easier to get into that mindset of staying patient.”
Forced to watch games on television or from the stands, Bloom had a unique perspective on TFC’s 2015 season, as he was able to diagnose the club’s defensive issues from afar.
“Defensively, that was our biggest weakness, but I don’t think that’s entirely on the back line—you need to look at the entire team in how it defended. Defending is a collective effort and there was a disconnect between the back four and the midfield as a defensive unit, which I think was the bigger problem,” Bloom offered.
“This league is getting better each day with better players, and if you make a mistake you’re going to get punished. It seemed liked we got punished on every one of our mistakes.”