Fletcher on MLS: Time to regroup for Toronto FC

Toronto FC's Robert Earnshaw. (CP)

TORONTO — A bye week could not come at a better time for a beleaguered Toronto FC side.

The just completed run of six games in 18 days saw them concede result-changing late goals in all four league games, as well as lose their crown as Canadian champions in humiliating fashion with a 6-2 aggregate loss to Montreal.

Though it would be wrong to blame the schedule for TFC’s problems, the poor results accurately reflected the performances of a team that appears to be rapidly spinning out of control. Time to rest, regroup and spend plenty of time on the training ground to get things pointed back in the right direction. But what exactly is it that needs to be done ahead of the May 18 game versus Columbus?

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It’s not just on the pitch that things look quite erratic right now, as there’s been plenty of moves made by management that raises some questions. Whether it was the curious decision to play Doneil Henry against San Jose, or the seemingly panicky last minute moves to bring in Steven Caldwell, and Tal Ben Haim, it’s clear Ryan Nelsen and Kevin Payne still don’t believe they have the right players at the back.

Figuring out that first choice back four will be the first order of business, and you’d think they wouldn’t be going to the trouble of bringing in the experienced Caldwell or Ben Haim to have them sitting on the bench. Ben Haim should take the left back spot, with Caldwell in the middle alongside captain Darren O’Dea, and Ryan Richter continuing at right back until Richard Eckersley is fit.

Having the week off to give them time to gel is perfect, and hopefully the injection of experience will lead to more composure late in the game with a result on the line. “Experienced” is, of course, a synonym for “old,” and that can go hand in hand with “slow” so I feel there are problems just waiting to be exposed there. But they should at the very least improve the set piece defending, still very much a thorn in TFC’s side.

The other new signing, Jeremy Brockie should also find his way into the first team and can hopefully provide an upgrade up front. Robert Earnshaw’s hot streak to start the season is very much over, so the more players that can contribute goals the better to alleviate the pressure late on. Only four goals in the last five league games has left little room for error, and as we’ve seen many times, making mistakes is what TFC’s defence seems to do best these days.

One option would be for Brockie to work up front with Earnshaw, but Justin Braun has linked up well with Earnshaw, so I’d be more inclined to take advantage of Brockie’s versatility and use him as an attacking midfielder. Luis Silva has shown only flashes of his potential so far this season, but has done enough to keep his place.

If there’s any one thing that TFC need to work on over the next week, it’s being able to hold on to possession and work the ball through midfield. Not only for creating more chances for the forwards to get the goals to provide the cushion, but to relieve some of the pressure on the defence. The second half against San Jose was one-way traffic, with TFC repeatedly giving away the ball and inviting wave after wave of attack that ultimately led to the defence cracking and allowing the winning goal.

One way to help with that might be with a change in net. Joe Bendik has performed admirably with many great saves, but his distribution has been pretty poor. Many times over the season, we’ve seen him kick the ball out of play, or too far for the forwards and right to the opposition goalie. If he can play more short passes to the defenders (and if the new defenders can be more comfortable linking with the midfield) that should mean less work for them.

After so many games with the same thing happening, it’s obvious that Bendik isn’t going rogue; taking no chances and clearing the ball is part of Ryan Nelsen’s plan. But it might be time to change that plan, or if not, maybe swap Bendik for Stefan Frei who seems able to find a teammate more often with his kicks.

There are a lot of things to work on, and plenty of possible solutions out there. Even without a game to play, this will end up being a very interesting 10 days for Toronto FC.

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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