TORONTO — Saturday’s win against New England was another good sign for Toronto FC as they continue under Paul Mariner down the long road to being merely averagely bad, or if fans dare to dream, actual respectability.
The back-to-back wins against Vancouver and New England were in part due to luck, but also showed the resiliency that will be needed if TFC are to continue playing the same defensive game that has consistently seen the opposition enjoy the overwhelming advantage in terms of possession.
With plenty of roster spots and cap space opened up, help is surely on the way. Olof Mellberg is the latest rumour and a veteran centre back would be a very welcome addition, as the Richard Eckersley-Logan Emory partnership still doesn’t inspire confidence, with Milos Kocic having to make save after save to preserve the lead in the second half against the Revolution.
While the defensive issues have been acknowledged and will hopefully be addressed, there is now more than likely a problem at the other end of the pitch, with Danny Koevermans going down with what could be a long-term injury. Koevermans’ return to fitness and the form he showed after arriving in Toronto in 2011 had been a huge plus for Mariner early on is his reign, his goals bringing the points that masked some of the problems the team was having in adapting to the new style.
Aside from Kocic, Koevermans was probably the most irreplaceable player on the roster, with no obvious proven alternate currently a part of the squad. Back in the 4-3-3, lone forward days of Aron Winter, Ryan Johnson was the backup, but with two strikers now being used, the squad really is very thin up front.
Johnson has been a hard working ever-present, who has done a lot for the team this year but really lacks a composed finishing touch in front of goal. Andrew Wiedeman, the player coming the other way in the Julian de Guzman trade with FC Dallas, was touted by Mariner as an able backup. But is he really ready to be an everyday player? He certainly hasn’t been up to this point and it would be a huge gamble to rely on the youngster.
Luis Silva is probably the only other realistic option from within the current squad, and the best option to move up to forward from midfield. His goals in the last two games have shown a delicate scorer’s touch relying more on placement than power that is very reminiscent of Koevermans, and he could be a good compliment to Johnson’s work ethic.
More than likely though, the goal-scoring will have to be done by committee from here on in, and in that regard both Terry Dunfield and Torsten Frings recently getting their first goals for the club is a good sign that TFC could survive without Koevermans.
It’s not just in the attack that Koevermans will be missed, as his absence will also mean increased pressure on the defence. First up is his ability to win back possession, hold on to and get the ball to a teammate to relieve pressure rather than have the ball just come back at the defence again and again.
Maintaining possession has been a problem all along under Mariner, which is a reflection of new priorities when compared to the Winter regime. But it’s meant a lot of attacking flourishes from the opposition, especially when TFC has the lead, and losing Koevermans will definitely not help.
The second way is that with his goal-scoring threat taken away, it’s one less thing for opponents to worry about. New England was able to go with a three-man backline and move Shalrie Joseph back into midfield, which was a huge factor in their dominance of the second half. TFC certainly had their chances on the breakaway, but any team is going to be more willing to commit men forward if it’s Johnson getting chances rather than Koevermans.
Just how long the Dutchman is out will probably play a role in how Mariner chooses to address this problem — whether to try and struggle through with the current squad, or to go out and bring in a proven striker.
In a sense, the poor start to the season is a blessing as with very little realistic prospects for success, there should be less pressure on Mariner to make a short-term move rather than thinking of what’s best for the long-term. Whatever he does it will be difficult to replace the goals Koevermans brings, and will make the task of getting points while rebuilding his team for the future all the tougher.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.