How many times does it need to be repeated before the Toronto FC brain trust does something about it?
One more time, then: It’s the defence, stupid!
The Reds’ well-documented defensive deficiencies were on full display to comical proportions Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League, with every goal conceded in a 6-2 loss to Mexican side Santos Laguna the direct result of shoddy defending, silly mental errors and, most shocking of all, a lack of effort.
Ever since 2007 when it entered the league, TFC has struggled on the back end, unable to find a central defender in the mould of a Paolo Maldini to act as the defensive quarterback.
Five years and a one general manager change later, we’re still talking about the same problem. Building a solid back line, even in a salary cap league like MLS, should not be this difficult. Other teams in this league have done it, so why can’t Toronto?
GMs in every sport make mistakes in terms of player evaluations from time to time, but the people in charge of putting together TFC’s roster have proven to be less than astute judges of talent when it comes to the club’s biggest and most glaring problem area.
Questions were rightly asked of Aron Winter and Paul Mariner in the pre-season when they signed Miguel Aceval and Geovanny Caicedo to help bolster a defence that gave up a league-high 59 goals last year in MLS. We were assured that these two tough, no-nonsense South American defenders would be up to the task.
But Caicedo was released from his contract by mutual consent before he even played a game for the Reds, with the club saying the Ecuadorian was homesick and that he had difficulty adjusting to the style of MLS. That explanation raises the obvious question — shouldn’t Toronto have anticipated that before they went to the trouble of signing him in the first place?
Aceval has proven to be a liability at the back, the Chilean routinely making the most elementary defensive errors and consistently being caught out of position. On Wednesday night, he was culpable on three goals: easily beaten to a high ball played into the box on Santos’ first, caught too far up field on the second, and foolishly handled the ball inside his penalty area that led to the fourth.
Maybe he can turn things around, but based on his form thus far, it’s doubtful. And with the club losing its first three games of the MLS season by a combined score of 7-1, they can’t continue to ride their luck with Aceval for much longer or they could find themselves in an even deeper hole.
And lest we forget last summer when Winter claimed Andy Iro could be a possible long-term solution to the team’s problems in the centre of defence. When he made the comment during a meeting with select members of the media, more than one reporter challenged him on his audacious claim, while others chuckled under the breath.
The vast majority in attendance that afternoon could see it. Winter didn’t. Iro, of course, went on to have a shaky campaign for the Reds (and that’s being charitable), but that didn’t stop the club from offering the much-maligned defender a contract extension in January. Iro turned it down and is no longer with the team. Thank goodness for small miracles.
TFC has put itself into a very difficult position. Fixing the back line will not be easy, as the club has little salary cap space (that’s what happens when you have three DPs, and not one of them is a defender) and there is far too much work to do to address the lack of quality or depth in defence (Ty Harden, like Aceval, is a liability, and rookie Aaron Maund is inexperienced), especially with the season already under way.
Adrian Cann, the team’s MVP in 2011, is still trying to regain his fitness back after a lengthy injury layoff, and it will likely be a few months before he’s back to his old self. The same goes for Dicoy Williams, who like Cann is coming back from off-season knee surgery.
Doneil Henry did show signs of maturation and growth during his recent stint with the Canadian Olympic team, but asking an 18-year old to step in and serve as the defensive lynchpin is unfair.
Make no mistake, these are dire times for Toronto FC, and the road ahead is fraught with peril. But it didn’t have to be this way, if only the club’s caretakers exercised better judgement.