Toronto FC’s playoffs hopes slipping away

Toronto FC's head coach Greg Vanney. Chris Szagola/AP Photo

Here’s what happened in Major League Soccer action between Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday evening at PPL Park, in case you missed it.

Game summary in a paragraph

Toronto’s FC managerial change didn’t have an immediate effect as Greg Vanney marked his coaching debut in a 1-0 loss, a result that extended the Reds’ winless run to four games and puts the team’s playoff hopes in a bit more doubt.

• Read the full match report and check out the boxscore

Main thoughts on the match

More intensity but same result: Club GM Tim Bezbatchenko called out his players last Friday, urging them to “take it up a notch.” That challenge wasn’t answered in a 3-0 loss to New England on Saturday, Ryan Nelsen’s last game in charge of the Reds.

At his introductory press conference the next day, Vanney said he wanted his players to show more spirit, and to be more aggressive, feeling that a lack of intensity had been missing in their recent outings.

TFC’s new coach told reporters after Wednesday’s game that he felt his side showed greater energy and aggressiveness, and that he couldn’t fault the players’ efforts. It was the execution that led them down, especially on the defensive end (more on that later).

This was always going to be a tough one for the Reds—playing under a new coach who was hired less than 72 hours ago, while missing half of their back line and their top scorer, and with the team mired in a terrible run of form.

Wednesday’s contest called for maturity and poise. Whether it was the injury absences, the new system, the pressure of the situation—or all three—this was a disjointed performance from a defensively naive Toronto side.

If only playing with spirit was enough. It’s not, lest we forget.

Defence still an issue: Make it 27 goals conceded and just one clean sheet in 14 matches for TFC.

With a litany of injuries headed into this one—Steven Caldwell, Justin Morrow and Warrean Creavalle—Vanney had limited defensive options. Then it got worse when we learned that Bradley Orr was on the bench dealing with a fractured toe and Jackson (who has filled in at right back) was out with a groin problem.

Vanney was forced to go with a very young back line, featuring a pair of 21-year-olds in Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund in the centre of defence, and Ashtone Morgan (who was making his first MLS appearance since the season opener) at left back. The defence’s lack of experience showed. Henry and Hagglund looked uncomfortable trying to build out from the back when in possession, and were too often too aggressive when trying to win the ball back, leaving space behind them exposed.

Henry was caught out at an inopportune time, leading to Conor Casey’s goal just after the re-start. Likewise, Hagglund’s ill-advised venture into the Philly half led to a counter, and resulted in Morgan being sent off in the 77th minute for pulling back Sebastien Le Toux and preventing a clear scoring chance. With fullbacks Morgan and Mark Bloom in higher starting positions, it put added pressure on Henry and Hagglund.

More selection headaches loom: Aside from all the injury problems mentioned above, TFC might have another one to deal with in Jonathon Osorio.

The Canadian midfielder was subbed out at the start of the second half because of a leg injury. Vanney told reporters after the game that Osorio was being evaluated by the team’s medical staff, but that they likely wouldn’t know the extent of the injury and whether he will miss any playing time until Thursday.

The potential loss or Osorio would be a big blow for TFC ahead of Saturday’s return match with the Union. The Reds will already be missing Jermain Defoe, Caldwell and Morrow through injury, as well as Ashtone Morgan, who will be suspended after earning a red card Wednesday night.

Gilberto only played 45 minutes in Philadelphia because of a tight calf, and Jackson didn’t make the trip. Who knows if they’ll be 100 percent fit for Saturday. Morgan’s absence means TFC will again have to shuffle things around at the back. If Osorio can’t play, it’ll mean another change in midfield.

Toronto’s depth is being tested at a crucial part of the season, with New England pulling ahead in the standings, Columbus and Philadelphia level on points, and New York and Chicago closing in. A playoff spot that looked to be a lock at the start of the summer is slipping away with nine games remaining.

Be worried. Be very, very worried.

He said it

“We have to tighten up the ship a bit.” – Greg Vanney

3 stars

1) Conor Casey: Scored the winner in the 55th minute, and used his size and strength for most of the game to boss around TFC’s young defenders.
2) Sebastien Le Toux: Set up Casey’s goal, managed to get Morgan sent off, and pulled the creative strings in midfield.
3) Zac MacMath and Joe Bendik: Both goalkeepers had great outings, making key saves to keep their teams in the game.

Stat of the night

There hasn’t been a first-half goal scored by either team in the last five games between Toronto and Philadelphia.

Head to head

Philadelphia leads the all-time series against Toronto with five wins and four draws in 11 games. The Union are unbeaten (with four wins) in six home matches against TFC.

Tweet of the night

Ben Rycroft with a wee bit of sarcasm…

What’s next?

Toronto returns to MLS action on Saturday afternoon when it hosts Philadelphia at BMO Field.

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