Maybe a home game against one of the top clubs in Mexico is just the thing to lift Toronto FC out of its funk.
The Reds have looked lacklustre in losing their first two games of the Major League Soccer season, their latest setback coming on Saturday with a shutout loss to the visiting San Jose Earthquakes.
Despite the rocky start to the MLS campaign, TFC players were in good spirits during their Tuesday morning training session at BMO Field ahead of their tilt against Santos Laguna in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal Wednesday night.
On paper, this match has disaster written all over it for the Canadian club, playing a team that sits fourth in the Mexican first division just days after being shut out in MLS play.
But assistant coach Bob de Klerk insists his team is ready for the challenge and eager to make amends for their performance against San Jose.
“That’s football. You always have a second chance. This is the chance for us (to rebound) from the last game against San Jose. It won’t be easy but everyone is feeling confident,” de Klerk told reporters.
TFC’s main problem so far this season has been in defence, having conceded six goals in two MLS games. With Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams, the team’s starting central defenders last year, still recovering from off-season knee injuries, TFC’s back line has looked disjointed and overwhelmed.
De Klerk feels opposing teams have been given “too much space” to operate and that the marking has to be much tighter near the 18-yard box.
“If you let the opponent turn and give them the time to turn and face our goal, that’s a big issue,” the Dutchman said.
Against Santos, de Klerk feels TFC has to be more compact, pointing to what the Seattle Sounders did in the Champions League quarter-finals against Santos as an example of what not to do — Santos hammered Seattle 6-1 at home and won the two-leg series 7-3 on aggregate.
“We will try to be very compact because when you play open and wide like Seattle did in Mexico, they got over-run. You have to be compact when you don’t have the ball,” de Klerk stated.
TFC have also defended a high line in the past two games, trying to compress the middle of the field and use the offside trap to stunt their opponent’s forward progress. The problem has been that the forwards and midfielders are playing higher up the field, and that’s meant Toronto
has been losing the battle in midfield, which has had negative ramifications on the defence.
“Sometimes keeping the high line exposed us in the last two games, so I think we need to drop the line a little bit,” forward Ryan Johnson offered. “We need to get more numbers behind the ball and capitalize more on the counter-attack instead of keeping so many guys high (up the field).”
The other issue, of course, has been the absence of captain and midfielder Torsten Frings. He suffered a hamstring injury in TFC’s season opening 3-1 loss to Seattle, and has been ruled out for four to six weeks.
Aside from marshalling the midfield, Frings also routinely drops back as a fifth defender or sweeper, so his importance to the club can’t be overstated. But with the German unavailable, de Klerk stressed it’s important for other players to step up in his absence.
“He’s very important for us. He brings a lot of confident to the other player and (with him injured) it’s necessary for somebody else to stand up, and last Saturday that didn’t happen. We hope that (Wednesday) the whole team realizes we have to do it together,” de Klerk said.
Stefan Frei broke his leg during last Friday’s practice, so it hardly came as a surprise that starting goalkeeper Milos Kocic did not participate in training on Tuesday. The club is relying on Brian Rowe, a goalkeeper from the league’s emergency pool, to serve as Kocic’s backup for the time being.
Kocic did some light work on his own Tuesday before his teammates took the field, and he rested for the remainder of the training session, taking the extra precaution to ensure he’ll be able to start against Santos.
The Serbian shot stopper stressed the importance of TFC keeping things tight at the back and trying to take a lead ahead of the return leg next week in Mexico.
“Over there it’s going to be crazy playing against one of the best teams in Mexico. How much money they have to invest in players and everything, it’s probably ten times more than us,” Kocic said. “But it’s the heart
that’s on the field … You have to have heart, be positive and fight for every ball.”