TORONTO — Outside Toronto FC‘s dressing room in its north Toronto training centre is a giant photo of the team celebrating its 2017 MLS Cup win.
Underneath is a quote from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: "Winning takes talent. Repeating takes character."
The 2018 season has been more of a test of character for the MLS champions than anyone could have imagined. The campaign is less than half over and Toronto (4-9-3) is mired in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
The schedule is not helping. Coming off a 1-0 loss Sunday to the visiting New York Red Bulls, Toronto plays at Minnesota United (5-10-1) on Wednesday and at West Conference leader Sporting Kansas City (9-3-5) on Saturday.
Away games at Orlando, Ottawa (the first leg of the Canadian Championship semifinal) and Chicago follow.
"We’re not nearly as far away as a lot of other teams in a similar position are,’ said defender Eriq Zavaleta. "Obviously we have a lot of talent and that helps. And it’s a group that’s been through good times and bad times together and I think that ultimately is incredibly important.
"Fortunately we can look at the bigger picture right now and see that there’s over half or just about half of the season left. You can certainly lose a season in the first half of the season but we don’t think we’re far enough away that we’ve done that yet. And we’re going to make as much of a run at this thing as we can."
Still, the task for Toronto is daunting.
Over the past six seasons, the last playoff team in the East has averaged 48.7 points over 34 games. Toronto is currently at 15 points (a 0.94 average) and would have to average 1.87 points a game the rest of the season to get there — only Atlanta (2.06), New York Red Bulls and Dallas (both 2.0) and Sporting Kansas City and LAFC (both 1.88) are playing at such a clip.
Even if fewer points are needed to get into the playoffs this season, TFC has to change gears quickly.
"There’s no way around any game. They’re all important now," said Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, one of the team’s bright spots.
"We all understand that the margin for error is getting smaller and smaller with each game that passes and we don’t get the result that we need to get out of the game," said coach Greg Vanney.
It’s not just TFC that is struggling. MLS Cup runner-up Seattle (3-9-3) sits in 11th position in the West on 12 points.
A gruelling CONCACAF Champions League campaign and injury-ravaged roster have taken their toll on Toronto. Those who were fit were played into the ground (witness Brazil’s Auro).
Some came back from the training room only to break down again. Zavaleta, for example, has had to deal with a calf issue in the pre-season, his quad in the Champions League and groin most recently.
As the season nears its midway point, the Toronto picture remains slightly out of focus. The team is showing signs of playing better but is making costly mistakes — the giveaway that led to the winning goal in a 2-1 loss to New York City FC and the fumbled Alex Bono save in the loss to the Red Bulls.
Vanney says TFC has been creating chances but not finishing enough of them. And mistakes in bad spots have turned into goals at the other end.
"Really from all statistical categories we had no business losing the last game (against the Red Bulls) and we still managed to find a way," Vanney said. "That’s the hump we have to get over."
The loss of Jozy Altidore (foot surgery) and the recent absence of playmaker Victor Vazquez (knee) have put the offensive onus on Sebastian Giovinco, who is creating goals (seven assists) but not scoring as many (three) as in the past.
Tosaint Ricketts’ lack of a pre-season due to injury has slowed the backup Canadian striker’s progress.
Other injuries perhaps have gone unreported. Captain Michael Bradley, who normally makes the Energizer Bunny look sluggish, was on the treatment table for some time after the Red Bulls loss.
While players have shown frustration on the pitch — check out the reaction to the Marky Delgado turnover that led to a goal in the NYFC loss — for the most part, the team has closed ranks.
"We know what we’re capable of and I think that’s a big reason why there’s no panic in the dressing room," said Osorio. "We trust each other and we know we can get out of it."
Auro is likely out for a few weeks with a hamstring issue. Fellow defender Jason Hernandez was due to undergo a scan Tuesday to determine the extent of the hamstring issues that forced him out of the Red Bulls game.
Vazquez did not train Tuesday, with a cortisone injection planned in a bid to reduce the swelling in his knee. He is listed as day-to-day but, given Minnesota plays on artificial turf, is not likely to figure Wednesday.
Gregory van der Wiel was back training Tuesday after been given some off to rest an ongoing Achilles issue. And fellow defender Chris Mavinga (hamstring) also was working out — albeit by himself. The hope is Mavinga will be "ready for something" come the July 14 Orlando game.