Fletcher on MLS: Same old same old from TFC

Toronto FC has lost four straight MLS matches. (CP)

TORONTO — It’s difficult to find anything positive to write after Toronto FC’s latest loss, the club’s fourth in a row for those counting.

Saturday’s 1-0 setback to the visiting Columbus Crew offered neither the short-term immediate gratification of exciting or even interested looking play, nor even anything that pointed to long-term benefits. Instead we saw what is looking more and more like TFC teams of days gone by, one that refuses to learn from its mistakes.

The late goals conceded and the lack of points is frustrating, but what’s really dispiriting is the way Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen have reacted to that downward slide, by taking so many backward steps.

It seemed promising when Payne talked of his shock at how badly things had been run in the past and spoke confidently of bringing in a new more professional outlook, of doing things differently and finally leading TFC to respectability.

After the initial shock, Payne and Nelsen seemed to recognise how tough the job ahead was and started approaching it correctly. From both of them there was talk of this being a rebuilding season. Hopefully they could compete this year but the main focus was long term, building the foundation for a better club, something that would require patience.

That played out early in the season as there seemed to be a focus on the defensive side of the game, tightening up a back line that was the league’s worst by a long way last season. Not much was happening to create chances, but some good luck and a hot streak from Robert Earnshaw helped mask that, and a decent haul of points made it easy to stick with the plan. It seemed like supporters were getting what we were promised. TFC was still a poor team, but they were more competitive at least, and the patience and hard work would surely pay off when the squad could be improved in the next few transfer windows.

Instead, when adversity hit (Earnshaw’s form dipping), injuries to the squad and multiple late goals influencing results, the panic button was hit, the focus no longer on the future, but on doing something, anything, to stop the bleeding right now. Arguably that’s a necessary step, but the way they’re going about is scarily reminiscent of failed regimes in the past.

The revolving door for players is back in full effect, with three players making their TFC debuts on Saturday, adding unfamiliarity and instability to the challenges to be overcome. Given the amount of players on loan, that’s something that’s likely to continue. Already 27 players have been used in MLS play. By the time the season’s over, the record for an MLS club of 38, set by TFC in 2011, could be in jeopardy.

There’s been plenty of hype and promises, as well. Rumoured and even announced deals haven’t worked out, with talk of big names coming in the summer window. TFC fans have heard it all before.

Even Payne’s marquee signing so far, Matías Laba, one of the better players out there on Saturday, runs the risk of repeating history — he’s already getting the “he needs better players around him to really be effective” treatment that often accompanied Julian de Guzman. While undoubtedly true, any player in the world would look better with improved players around him, so it again brings up one question: did the team really need a DP spot to be used on the defensive midfield position?

Many of the old mistakes resurfaced on the pitch on Saturday. The mystery benching of Danny Califf continues, despite repeated talk of the need for experience and character. There was also a double helping of players being played out of position, with Darren O’Dea taking up the left back spot and Justin Braun confusingly being dropped back into midfield, often on the right wing before being subbed off at half time.

Then there was of course the post-game praise that flew in the face of what everyone just witnessed, with Fran O’Leary doing the honours for this game, suggesting Toronto deserved better, while insisting, despite the evidence to the contrary, that nobody at TFC is panicking.

The other TFC constant (especially against the Crew) was a defeat. Any Toronto fan would have gone into the season realistically expecting plenty of those. The insipid nature of that loss though, and the way the Reds have reacted to the recent results is what really shakes my faith that things are going to be any different this time next season.

Let’s hope that the closing of the transfer window for a while might lead to some stability and a re-commitment to the plan of building a long term foundation. Losing during an intelligent rebuild is one thing, and something that fans are willing to accept while the new management gets things right. But to lose while making the exact same mistakes as the previous six losing seasons is a whole other thing to have to accept.

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.

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