TORONTO — At this point, it’s starting to feel like a reoccurring nightmare for Toronto FC.
We’ve seen this before countless times: The finish line on the horizon and moments away from victory, only for it to be cruelly snatched away in the dying moments.
The script played out last Saturday as it has in three of the last four matches. Toronto found a way to unravel and conceded a late equalizer, with Houston Dynamo scoring deep into injury time. Boos rained down from the stands at BMO Field after the final whistle, serenading a demoralized group of players as they headed for the tunnel.
Same story, different year. You’d be inclined to assume that the club is cursed and destined to be the punch line of Major League Soccer. Somehow, it all goes wrong.
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Looking at the negatives is easy, especially with this franchise given their track record since joining the league six years ago. Spoiled since inception by a loyal fan-base -- almost to a fault -- only to provide empty promises and annual rebuilds for inflated prices. The cost has never measured up to the product delivered on the field.
What makes this season unlike its predecessors is quite simple. Despite the early slip-ups and dropped points from winning positions, the attitude of this club has changed. You could hear it in the manager’s voice during his post-match comments, and you could see it in the players’ faces in the dressing room. These lapses in concentration will not be tolerated moving forward.
TFC captain Darren O'Dea was adamant after their latest disappointment that this will not be the running theme this season.
"I'm going to put my neck on the line -- it won't happen again, because it can't, we've just been too good, and deserved more. The fans, everyone deserves more at the club,” O’Dea boldly claimed.
The Irish international was gutted in the dressing room, fielding questions from various media outlets trying to explain just what went wrong. He was visibly distraught.
"From start to finish, we were by far the better team,” he said.
It was a sentiment shared by everyone who watched the game last Saturday. However, the habit of conceding late goals and throwing away valuable points continues.
"Instead of just staying calm and composed, we get a little bit jitter (closing out matches)," O'Dea said.
When you put into perspective their last four results in MLS, progress has been made. An even split against the defending MLS Cup champs (Los Angeles) and MLS Cup runners-up (Houston) isn't too bad, and a draw in Philadelphia was incredibly favourable, having suffered a 3-0 defeat in this fixture last year.
But the most impressive result came against current league leaders FC Dallas, by way of a six-minute comeback that surprised everyone. Instead of looking at it as six points dropped, a positive outlook would be four points earned against the league’s top teams this season.
Nelsen attributed the way things have gone to a learning curve: "There's times when there is a hyper-focus on certain parts of the game, there’s an intensity that gets you over the finish line, you get that through experience, week in and week out."
O'Dea echoed his manager’s belief: "It's a mentality thing. We've got the right people here and staff in place (to be successful)."
At this point in the schedule a year ago, the points stood at zero and the season was practically over before it started. The current squad is completely different than the previous version.
"I've seen them from day one to where they are now, they've grown up and all improved individually and as a team,” Nelsen offered.
In regards to the latest setback, Nelsen was firm, but expressed plenty of sympathy towards his players.
"To throw these points away, their very hard to get back. I feel really bad for them, all their hard work put in during the week, it was a fantastic performance (against Houston) and should have been rewarded with three points,” he said.
TFC fans might be less forgiving and rightfully so. The agony and heartache of supporting a failing franchise for six seasons has tested their patience. But as team chemistry improves, so will results. It's not an overnight fix, though, and the club is taking the right approach this time around. Mistakes should be expected, especially with a young roster.
So far, Toronto has played their best soccer set up in a 4-4-2, which was the formation used against Houston. They were more composed and comfortable on the ball, and for once took the game to their opponent. It seems like the right formation moving forward for this club.
It might be difficult to see the positives, the psyche of a TFC supporter is incredibly fragile. However, if you peel back the layers of disappointment, things become much clearer. A transformation is taking place.
You just have to take a closer look.
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