Fletcher on MLS: TFC continues to bend and break

Ryan Richter (left) in action for Toronto FC. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — There are a lot of ways Toronto FC could put a positive spin on Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to Real Salt Lake.

It was the club’s first defeat in a month. They held the league leaders to one goal and really only one good chance. On the balance of play, they deserved a tie and with a bit of luck could have earned a win.

But really this game showed just how far TFC has to go before it can compete with the elite teams in MLS.

Ryan Nelsen has talked all season about building a foundation and has clearly been focused on the defence, with two defensive midfielders playing in front of the back four being one of the few constants through the first half of the campaign.

It’s paid off in their recent run of games, as Matias Laba and Steven Caldwell have settled in and both looked good and the defence has improved, with only three goals conceded in four matches in June. It was the same story on Saturday, with Caldwell dominant in the middle, and the much vaunted RSL midfield never really getting going, creating very little in the way of dangerous chances.

Even Ryan Richter put in an improved performance, keeping Joao Plata quiet as well as contributing by going forward. On the other side, Darren O’Dea continues to be a revelation at left back, looking more and more comfortable in joining the attack.

That’s all well and good, and focusing on the defence first is the sensible thing to do. But this was another game that showed a lack of cutting edge up front. Once again there was some encouraging play through midfield, and Richter and O’Dea did good work helping out down the flanks. But it never really quite came together. Crosses were just not right, and balls played behind the defence were hit too hard.

Danny Koevermans showed that he certainly has some rust to work off before the team’s overall attacking quality will improve. In the meantime, they’ll continue to struggle unless the balance of the team is changed to be a bit more attacking. Is the defence good enough to survive without the training wheels of that second defensive midfielder?

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As well as needing an improved balanced approach and attacking reinforcements, the other thing hurting TFC right now is the lack of a winning mentality — the ability to close out games, and play well when the pressure is on.

Many times this season, the defence has been just plain bad and the pressure of the last few minutes has been too much for the Reds to withstand. We’ve all seen the late goals and points thrown away at the death far too often.

Right now, though, the main issue is up front, and once again the problem was ruthlessly exposed at the end of Saturday’s game. There were plenty of chances. Three times in injury time TFC had an attempt at goal from inside the box, but they couldn’t finish any of them off. It was the same as against Houston last week, the best chance coming late to Koevermans who failed to convert.

It could be said it was down to good saves from the goalies, or bad luck, as chances were cleared off the line. But to dismiss it in such a way would be too easy. Finishing a game off isn’t usually about luck. It’s a skill as important, perhaps more so, as any other and we shouldn’t be surprised that Salt Lake and Houston both got the better of TFC.

Generally this year, TFC has held its own, and they haven’t been overrun, but it mainly comes down to having that winning mentality. It’s something that Houston and Salt Lake have developed over the years. They know how to win, or at least not to lose. They both bend at the end of the games, but they don’t break, unlike TFC.

That’s a mentality that the club has never acquired. More than overhauling the quality of the squad, instilling an ability to close out a game might be the biggest challenge facing Ryan Nelsen.

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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