Fletcher on MLS: Toronto FC rebuilding on the fly

Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen. (CP)

“We might be hurting for one or two games, but in the long run, it’ll benefit the club” – Ryan Nelsen, July 9.

Well, we can’t say they didn’t warn us. Hurting would be a kind way of describing what happened on Saturday night as only some great saves by Joe Bendik kept the scoreline down to a 3-0 loss away to Sporting Kansas City.

Even at the best of times for Toronto FC this would be a bit of a mismatch. Sporting Kansas City is undeniably a better team and with the recently returned Kei Kamara joined by Graham Zusi and Matt Besler back from international duty, they clearly outplayed the Reds.

As for TFC, well this wasn’t the best of times for the on-the-pitch product, as with four players still away on Gold Cup duty and Danny Koevermans again injured, management has begun another mini teardown/rebuild cycle since the transfer window opened.

Luis Silva and Danny Califf were already gone, with only the minor addition of Mark Bloom coming the other way. Then, right before kickoff came the news that captain Darren O’Dea wasn’t playing and was actually back in Toronto finalising a transfer which O’Dea himself made clear on Twitter was very much the club’s idea, not his.

Effectively, after a month or so of relative stability and improved results to show for it, the Reds are now in another pre-season, practically their third of the year.

The good news going into the game was the return of right fullback Richard Eckersley, but O’Dea’s sudden absence meant instead he was at left back. Ryan Richter was still at right back versus Kansas City and he and Reggie Lambe were a disaster down that side. Darel Russel replaced Richter in the second half and was no better, though Lambe’s sending off didn’t help him out. Sporting, and especially Kamara, ran riot down both wings all night.

Eckersley should be an improvement when he does move to the right side of defence and hopefully Bloom or perhaps Ashtone Morgan can do well in the newly re-opened left back spot. While O’Dea’s switch to left back was presumably only ever going to be temporary, his departure, and Califf’s retirement, means there’s now very little coverage at the centre back position.

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Steven Caldwell has been impressive since arriving, but he’s coming off a full season in England and being exposed to the rigours of travel and summer heat in the MLS for the first time. You’d have to think at the very least fatigue would be a concern. If he does need a rest, a pairing of Doneil Henry and Gale Agbossoumonde would be very risky, so more depth needs to be added there.

It would be foolish to draw too many conclusions about the squad’s needs from a game played in such circumstances. But there are a lot of holes to be filled and there may well be further holes created as management keeps trying to shed some of the big contracts that aren’t providing good value.

A lot of salary cap space has been created and allocation money collected, but you don’t get points for that, so hopefully replacements, both high impact and good value depth, are arriving shortly. Any time a lot of players are brought in some of them won’t work out. No manager or GM out there has a 100 per cent record and even those signings that do work out, that stick with and improve the team, will take time to gel with their teammates and adapt to the league.

Any rebuild involves a step back, essentially creating the conditions necessary to take steps forward and hopefully you end up ahead of where you started. TFC made a lot of changes in April and May that meant a rough stretch of games before finding a better team thanks to the additions of the likes of Caldwell, Matias Laba and Jeremy Brockie and the emergence of Jonathan Osorio. Performances improved as a result.

Only time will tell if the changes made now will again leave the team in a better place when the dust settles, but on the evidence of Saturday, it’ll be much more than one or two games that TFC will be hurting.

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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