TORONTO – It’s the midway point of the Major League Soccer season, and all is not well with Toronto FC.
With a 2-8-7 record and just 13 points, TFC is the second-worst club in the 19-team league and currently sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, 13 points behind the Houston Dynamo, who hold the fifth and final playoff berth.
What started out as a bright campaign for the Reds, marked by a surprising win against one of MLS’s best outfits in Sporting Kansas City in Week No. 2, quickly fell apart. An 11-match winless run (six losses and five draws) saw Toronto plummet down the standings, as the team struggled to become a cohesive unit with players floating in and out of the organization via a series of trades, loan deals and roster cuts.
Some of the old issues that have plagued this team since its inception resurfaced, too: conceding late goals, a lack of clean sheets, few points earned on the road and a failure to put in complete game performances.
The immediate future looks pretty gloomy, and unless the team can go on a miracle run during the second half of the season, TFC is destined to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year.
Rookie coach Ryan Nelsen, though, paints a far more optimistic picture, believing that the team has made progress from the start of the season. Fair enough. But is a playoff berth still attainable? Nelsen left no doubt when asked by sportsnet.ca.
“Of course. Every game we look to win. The attitude has been absolutely fantastic. The fans can’t argue with the attitude of the players, or the performance of the players. It’s obviously the results that are not good enough,” Nelsen said.
Captain Darren O’Dea agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“We’ve performed well in a lot of games for large parts. But I suppose when it’s really come down to the crunch time we’ve conceded at poor times,” O’Dea admitted. “Performance-wise, we’re nearly where we want to be, but certainly results-wise we’re miles off.”
One of the big problems, according to TFC’s captain, has been the team’s lack of composure at times at both ends of the field – in terms of converting scoring chances and clearing its defensive lines when under pressure.
“I feel like in every game we’ve been in it, and if we were a bit more clinical in either box we’d have picked up a lot more points and we would be (playoff) contenders. (We need) a little more concentration at vital times in games. And it’s not just the end of games; it’s throughout games,” O’Dea said.
Even though Toronto has only managed two wins, Nelsen maintains that TFC hasn’t really been outplayed.
“The foundations (of the club) are getting stronger and stronger. Obviously the results, they haven’t been backed up by the performances. We could have had four or five extra wins if we had certain personnel at the start of the year,” Nelsen offered.
Further to that later point, Nelsen explained it’s been difficult for him and new club president and GM Kevin Payne to rebuild the team after taking over from the previous managerial regime in the off-season.
“We’re starting to take a bit of shape to the squad. It’s been very hard. When we took over, we had no salary cap room, we had players that really weren’t MLS tested or proven,” Nelsen claimed.
Payne has been hit-and-miss with some of his player moves.
Ryan Richter has proven to be a liability and not an MLS-standard player, Darel Russell has failed to impress, and fellow defender Danny Califf quickly fell out of favour and hasn’t practised with the team for months. English attackers Hogan Ephraim and John Bostock proved to be busts, but luckily for TFC they were only here on loan deals.
Two other loanees, forward Robert Earnshaw (the club’s top scorer) and veteran defender Steven Caldwell were quality additions and have been signed to extensions. Young Argentine midfielder Matias Laba looks to be a player who could be the cornerstone of the franchise for many years, while Canadian prospects Jonathan Osorio has been a pleasant surprise, as has been New Zealand loanee Jeremy Brockie.
Still, even with the positive contributions from the newcomers, the hard truth is that TFC hasn’t been able to convert quality team performances (Nelsen’s and O’Dea’s characterization) into putting points on the board. What’s the point of playing well unless it leads to victories?
It sounds as though Nelsen is pinning his playoff hopes for this season on new recruits, promising that the club will make a big splash in the summer transfer window by signing a few players who will be difference makers and make TFC a more competitive side.
“Hopefully we can complement (the roster) with a few players, then we’re starting to look like a proper MLS team. … We’re just a few (new players) away,” Nelsen opined.