Much like Toronto FC’s previous game against L.A, there’s really not much to say about Saturday’s 4-1 loss in New York.
A bright start and fantastic goal from Ryan Johnson, and a better overall effort from the Reds wasn’t enough to overcome the gulf in class between the two sides as Thierry Henry ran riot for the Red Bulls.
In the buildup, Toronto coach Paul Mariner pointed to injuries as limiting his options, stating “you can only play a certain way with the players you’ve got for selection,” and that “the beautiful game at the present moment is a vision.”
Injuries are definitely a valid issue, but it’s a bit rich for Mariner to be complaining about the players available to him hampering his plans. Exactly how much influence Mariner had while Aron Winter was in charge is a contentious matter of debate these days, but many of the decisions he’s made since taking over have put him in this precarious position.
There are clearly arguments to made in favour of trading Julian de Guzman, but giving yourself little choice other than selecting Aaron Maund as a defensive midfielder isn’t the best thing to do if “the beautiful game” is something you aspire to. Replacing Nick Soolsma and Joao Plata with one dimensional speed merchants such as Quincy Amarikwa and Reggie Lambe? Again that’s not going to help.
Even with the players still available to him, Mariner has made curious team selections that make it harder than it needs to be. Leaving Eric Avila on the bench in favour of Andrew Wiedeman, or Amarikwa is a puzzler. The case of Richard Eckersley is even worse. He’s not a centre back, and even Mariner knows this. During the Saturday’s broadcast, TV commentator Dan Dunleavy mentioned that when asked if he was planning on playing Eckersley there next year, Mariner said no.
So why keep playing him there now? It’s apparently not for the sake of the future, and it doesn’t help the team in the present either. You only have to look at both of Kenny Cooper’s goals Saturday to see that Eckersley doesn’t really have the instincts of a centre back. On both goals, Cooper was wide open because Eckersley left him to run off towards the ball and Henry, rather than stick with his man and let his teammates do their job. There are skills Eckersley brings but he’s not an upgrade over one of the four centre backs on the bench, and certainly not enough to justify the downgrade at the right back position.
When it comes to attacking, providing support and an extra option down the right flank, Eckersley is a big improvement over Jeremy Hall. Presumably the plan is to have him fill that role next season, so why not let him play there now? It’s a lot harder for the wide right midfielder to impress without Eckersley helping out, or at least providing that something extra for opposing defenders to think about that Hall just doesn’t bring. Let’s see how Lambe, Amarikwa or Wiedeman can play when they can combine with the guy who’ll be the first choice right back next year.
These baffling team selections aren’t going to help with the off-season rebuild, either. Looking at Mariner’s recent lineups, there are obviously quite a few players that aren’t part of his plans, who will probably be let go at the end of the campaign. Leaving them on the bench now though is really just minimizing any chance of trading them to another MLS team and turning them into assets, whether it be in exchange for allocation money, supplemental draft picks or future considerations.
Dicoy Williams, Ty Harden or Adrian Cann can’t even get into the team with the worst defence in the league. Avila can barely get a game, not even ahead of the likes of Wiedman or Amarikwa or Maund. Why not give them a chance? Maybe they’ll prove they should stick around, or maybe it will just be a shop window to impress another team.
On the surface, it appears as though Mariner has given up on them and is backing himself into a corner where the only option will be to outright release them, which sadly wouldn’t be a new thing for TFC.
At the end of the 2011 season, the Reds released seven players. In 2010, they let go five players. Twelve players in two years, all released with nothing coming back in return, and it looks likely we’ll see something similar this year.
The job of creating a competitive team for 2013 was always going to be a hard one, but there’s no need for Mariner to make it harder for himself. There’s certainly no need to be crying poor about a lack of options when there’s plenty that he just stubbornly refuses to use.
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.